This week, the world celebrated International Youth Day. For Pakistan, this year’s theme of “transforming education” could not be more pertinent. As the country continues to rank abysmally on virtually every education indicator, the theme begs a closer look at past and present attempts at reform.
One important but highly contentious aspect of the education debate in Pakistan is the quest to reform the madressah education sector. In May, the PTI government and the Ittehad-i-Tanzeemat-i-Madaris Pakistan (ITMP) — a federation of the main madressah oversight bodies in the country — reached an agreement to bring the deeni madaris into the fold of mainstream education.
Unfortunately, for those of us who have followed the education debate over the years, such pledges have become cliched. Over the past four decades, virtually every government has attempted to move in this direction. Yet, none ended up with much to show for their efforts.
Read: Madressah reform
If the PTI government is to avoid the fate of its predecessors, it will have to learn the right lessons from previous failures. Chief among them is to avoid approaching the issue as a national security imperative, and instead direct focus to improving education outcomes.
Education is a critical element in a state and society’s responsibility towards ensuring the youth’s healthy transition to adulthood. Pakistan’s 2017 Human Development Report on youth summarises this journey as a combination of three ‘Es’: education, employment and engagement. An educational experience that allows youth to develop the skillsets necessary to acquire a respectable livelihood and empowers them to engage productively within the broader society enables a country to transform its youth bulge into a dividend. The opposite — an environment that leaves large segments of youth marginalised and alienated from mainstream economic, political and social activity — presents a ticking time bomb; it has led youth around the world to seek agency by supporting or participating in violence.
The question of how to enact madressah reforms has continued to plague governments particularly since seminaries were linked in the popular consciousness to rising religious extremism. Ironically, that national security focus may well be the reason all attempts have failed so far...
For it to be sustainable, any attempt at reforming education must therefore target the student’s wellbeing. The end goal: achieving the three ‘Es’.
This is where previous efforts at madressah reform in Pakistan have faltered.
The Madressah Sector
Pakistan inherited around 250 madressahs at the time of independence. While estimates vary, and accurate numbers are difficult to assess, today around 32,000 madressahs cater to between 2.5 to 3.5 million students. The sector employees nearly 75,000 teachers. A large proportion of the madressahs are unregistered.
Majority of the madressahs are loosely run by one of five umbrella network associations, the Wafaqs: Wafaq-ul-Madaris Al-Arabia (Deobandi); Tanzeem-ul-Madaris (Barelvi); Rabita-ul-Madaris Al-Islamia (Jama’at-i-Islami); Wafaq-ul-Madaris Al-Salfia (Ahl-i-Hadith); and Wafaq-ul-Madaris Al-Shia (Shia). Each Wafaq represents its own denomination (maslak). The ITMP is a supra-body where the five Wafaqs notionally converge. In practice, individual madressahs have extreme autonomy. The Wafaqs primarily determine syllabi, administer exams and award degrees.
The Misplaced National Security Approach
For decades, the madressah problem has been viewed through a national security lens. Concern that Pakistan’s post-9/11 militancy problem stems, in part, from madressahs has misplaced the sector’s reform under the national security umbrella. Believing that more formal governance and oversight will break links to extremism, reforms have aimed to attain greater control of the sector. Well-rehearsed fixes involving madressah registration, oversight of finances and revision of curricula have been cornerstones of past attempts at reform. Even though these efforts were presented as means of ensuring holistic education in a more conducive environment for students, these were ancillary concerns that would benefit from the downstream effects of attempts to curb the madressah sector’s extremist links.
Viewing madressah reform through a national security lens is not devoid of logic. In 1980, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Pakistani state, allied with the US, encouraged these traditional centres of free religious instruction to give a fillip to its support of the ‘jihad’ next door. The effort also coincided with General Ziaul Haq’s ‘Islamisation’ agenda under which he diverted funds to select madressah networks. The state’s use of Islamist militants for proxy wars through the 1980s and the 1990s allowed both sanctioned and unsanctioned actors a relatively safe space to expand and blossom.
That a minority of madressahs got embedded in the militant milieu during this period was only natural. While the first signs of an internal backlash were evident in the 1990s — when links between growing sectarian hatred and the strictly sect-based teachings of madressahs emerged — it wasn’t until 9/11 that this sector was deemed to be an immediate national security problem. As the US-led ‘War on Terror’ commenced, hundreds of Western scholars took to unpacking the madressah problem purely from a counterterrorism perspective — going far enough to declare Pakistani madressahs as “incubators of violent extremism.” The Musharraf government, also fixated on terrorism post-9/11, approached the issue similarly.
Couched in the language of education reform, the security lens became even more explicit as time went by. Madressah reform was included in the National Action Plan drafted in the aftermath of the Army Public School terrorist attack in 2014 and the 2018 National Internal Security Policy (NISP). Continued international pressure on Pakistan to ‘do more’ on the counterterrorism front, including curbing elicit financial flows to satisfy the Financial Action Task Force, has further entrenched the madressah-extremism link in the popular discourse given that many prominent madressahs depend on undocumented donations from local and foreign sources.
Justified as it may have seemed, given the post-9/11 context, the national security approach was too fixated on the immediate terrorism threat to develop any long-term reform agenda with a focus on student wellbeing. To the contrary, it stigmatised the entire sector even though only a small minority was involved in promoting militancy. This caused widespread resentment among madressah leaders and students. Besides, the reforms never took off.
Each attempted reform was met with resistance from madressah authorities who contested the government’s efforts to register them and increase oversight and control. Lacking cooperation, the state was forced to resort to law-enforcement operations to target extremists linked to the madressahs. While it did score successes in identifying and neutralising extremist institutions and actors, these actions also caused tensions with the madressah authorities who have repeatedly criticised the state for dealing with them as a national security threat rather than educators of some of the poorest children in the country.
While this critique has merit, especially from the perspective of the millions of law-abiding madressah students, the fact is that the prominent, and thus powerful, madressahs have a strong interest in maintaining autonomy over their management and undocumented financial flows. The Wafaqs derive their power from their monopoly as umbrella organisations of madressahs of their specific maslak. They are solely responsible for administering examinations and awarding degrees; they generate a handsome revenue stream from the madressahs while lobbying the government on their behalf. These madressah-sector leaders fear that the state will use its reform agenda to gradually increase its control over the sector. Thus, they have typically resisted greater government oversight.
The national security approach was too fixated on the immediate terrorism threat to develop any long-term reform agenda with a focus on student wellbeing. To the contrary, it stigmatised the entire sector ...
The state’s national security approach has made it easier for these leaders to stand their ground. Since the state’s narrative about the madressah-extremism link was often indistinguishable from that of the international community, it left itself open to instant criticism for toeing a Western agenda. It also did not help matters by tasking the Ministries of Religious Affairs and Interior and provincial Industries departments to deal with the madressahs on a regular basis. None of these agencies have any experience in or sensitivity to the requirements of education reform, a fact that madressah authorities regularly point to.
As a result, the sector has been beset with extreme mistrust, with the madressah authorities adopting a passive-aggressive attitude in questioning the state’s intentions in seeking reform. Broader reforms centred on student empowerment remain elusive.
Adopting the Education Reform Lens
A reform approach focused on education — and specifically the welfare of students — must have a fundamentally different starting point than a national security perspective. The framing of the problem should be the same as for mainstream education institutions: poor educational outcomes. The caustic narrative that has problematised the madressahs in popular discourse should be disaggregated, with the national security approach reserved for the minority within the sector that is linked to militancy. All other madressah students ought to be imagined as victims of the failure of the madressah authorities and state alike to prepare them to become well-educated, employable, and engaged members of a modern society. This mindset would automatically focus the state’s reform agenda on turning these three ‘Es’ in the students’ favour.
The situation of the madressah sector is truly alarming in this regard.
Madressahs fail miserably in providing quality education. Despite numerous attempts by the state over the years to modernise and expand their curriculum, the majority of madressahs continue to teach a purely religious curriculum. Those that have included mainstream subjects often use obsolete material, sometimes reflecting the knowledge and orientation from a millennium ago. Madressah students are therefore left with little ability to comprehend and analyse contemporary realities in a balanced manner. Many develop a rejectionist approach and struggle to have constructive engagement with out-group peers and other segments of society.
The mode of instruction used in madressahs makes matters worse. Like public schools, madressahs rely on rote memorisation and shun critical thinking. However, in this case, teachers tend to have an exaggerated role in shaping the minds of their pupils. Since madressahs offer free education and room and board, their students are often severed from their families at a very young age. The madressah head embodies the surrogate father figure and, in the absence of the family, commands unquestioned loyalty. Virtually never trained in pedagogy, they not only stick to a purist approach — inculcating beliefs strictly based on their interpretations of religious texts — but force a rejectionist view of the maslaks/sects they disagree with. When madressahs teach their students to argue and debate — munazara — it is meant to equip the pupils to defend the particular maslak’s biases rather than question them.
Next, the nature of madressah education all but assures lack of adequate employability. The government only partially recognises madressah degrees. Only the highest level of the madressah curriculum, the Shahadat-ul-Almiya, is considered worthy of equivalence to a post-graduate degree, but it can, for the most part, only be used for further studies or jobs in the religious services sector. Even beyond the degree equivalence issue, employers are naturally averse to hiring youth with little background in modern education. Madressah students therefore find themselves firewalled in the job market while private schools give students access to powerful and wealthy social networks. Madressah graduates inevitably suffer from an ‘expectation-reality disconnect’: having spent roughly the same amount of time acquiring education as their peers in mainstream schools, they too expect a bright future. And yet, they face structurally ordained discrimination which leaves them frustrated when they look for respectable livelihoods.
Perhaps most disturbing among the three ‘Es’ however is the failure of the madressahs to empower their pupils to engage positively with the society around them. While students are able to form strong in-group bonds, their social networks tend to be limited to individuals with similar reference points; most often these are peers educated in madressahs of the same maslak. Lacking broader exposure, madressah students are often mistrusting and disparaging of other sects and unable to relate to out-group members of society positively.
Add to this the socio-economic stratification of the education system as a whole that inevitably feeds into the tendency to “otherise” out-group peers. Class consciousness has become so acute that youth from different socio-economic strata have virtually no opportunities for meaningful interaction. Lacking any opportunity to gain a genuine appreciation for the lives and backgrounds of madressah students, elite views are informed almost wholly by the national security discourse on madressahs. Elite children consider themselves superior to their madressah counterparts, stereotyping them as backward and viewing the sector as a security risk. Madressah students, on their part, hold the elite responsible for their deprivation and discrimination in society and for espousing Western values that they see as alien, if not antithetical, to their beliefs.
Incidentally, this failure of the state and madressah authorities to enable students to successfully transition to adulthood increases their susceptibility to supporting or perpetrating violence — even when they are educated at the madressahs that have no agenda to support the militant milieu. The absence of a level playing field accentuates frustration and resentment among those left out. In addition, intolerance of diversity, purist belief systems deeply embedded in the curriculum and teaching methods, and absence of positive out-group peer interactions reinforce an exclusionary mindset, a sense of injustice, marginalisation, mutual alienation and distrust in state institutions. These feelings are all known to be common drivers of youth involvement in violence.
The Way Forward
As the PTI government proceeds with its madressah reform plan, its approach must go beyond rhetoric in decoupling madressahs linked to the militant milieu and the overwhelming majority that are peaceful. A national security approach should be strictly limited to the madressahs that are linked to extremists. For all others, the reform narrative ought to mirror that used for mainstream education. The quest to educate with an aim to ensure employability and constructive engagement of youth should drive the effort.
Given its focus on youth-centred policies, the PTI government is already well situated to approach madressah reform holistically. While madressah authorities have been resistant partners in the past, the PTI government’s vision of a uniform national curriculum aligns with the madressah sector’s long-standing demand to level the playing field for all Pakistani students. In a move that will likely please madressah authorities, the government has placed madressah reform under the federal education ministry, making it part of the overall national education reform agenda.
This is a promising start. The real test however will come when the government attempts to collect fresh information through the registration process. The Wafaqs have battled efforts of previous governments, especially objecting to the intrusive nature of some of the requested data. Trouble is brewing again. Last week, the ITMP threatened to stop cooperating with the government if any department other than the federal education ministry were tasked to collect information from the madressahs. They alleged that law enforcement agencies were continuing to do so in violation of the ITMP’s agreement with the government in May. The government should address this concern. Moreover, to enhance the chances of success, it should also limit demands for detailed information on students and teachers or financial audits of past transactions in lieu of the madressahs agreeing to operate all institutional finances through formal banking channels going forward. The government is already planning to facilitate opening of bank accounts; it should also help train madressahs on maintaining proper balance sheets. Such help may be most welcome by the smaller madressahs who, unlike their more prominent counterparts, are often not financially stable and therefore more receptive to government support. However, all madressah representatives must recognise that Pakistan is under intense international pressure to document its informal economy and persistent resistance to allow financial oversight can have grave diplomatic consequences for the country.
Another challenge for the government will be to coordinate its reform effort bureaucratically. Successful implementation of madressah reforms will require close coordination between federal and provincial authorities, since provinces oversee implementation and monitoring of education reforms. In some cases, reform plans may require fresh provincial legislation. The process to prepare and table any required legislation should be initiated as soon as possible to avoid coordination issues down the road.
The First ‘E’: Education
Fortunately, the education ministry and Wafaq leaders have agreed in principle to expand the madressah curriculum to mainstream subjects. While this is not the first time such an understanding has been reached, encouragingly, the government seems sensitive to the madressah authorities’ red lines. Mainstream education will now be mandatory and madressah students will be required to take regular matriculate and FA/FSc exams for these subjects. But crucially for the Wafaqs, they will continue to administer the religious curriculum and its examination and will also retain the madressah degree-awarding function. This is crucial, as Wafaqs have historically resisted reform if it required surrendering their monopoly on these tasks and the clout that accompanies it. This arrangement balances the desires of both parties and could begin a healthy partnership between the two.
Still, the mere introduction of mainstream education is not enough, in fact even futile, if the content of these subjects is not modernised and standardised. Moreover, a revamping of religious education is also needed. While, ideally, the instruction in all madressahs should be supra-sectarian, the political economy of the Wafaqs and the unflinching affinity to their respective maslaks will make this impossible for now. A starting point could be for the government and madressah authorities to jointly revise and standardise the Dars-i-Nizami (the core madressah curriculum that includes Arabic, Islamic jurispudence and the Quranic teachings; the overtly maslak/sectarian-specific content is taught in addition to the Dars-i-Nizami). Further, whatever can be done to encourage critical thinking and analytical skills should be attempted. Stronger critical thinking skills not only improve academic performance, academic achievement and positive social engagement but also build resilience to extremist ideology in vulnerable youth. Again, these efforts ought not to be limited to the Wafaq leaders; smaller madressahs may be more interested and, given the right financial incentives, would be willing to pilot these changes.
Regardless of content and policy, true transformation can only be realised if instructors are able and willing to cooperate. Most madressahs do not have the capacity to teach mainstream subjects. While there is talk of the state assisting in recruitment of teachers, hiring at this scale in the short term is beyond its means and capability. One alternative could be to financially incentivise public school teachers in the vicinity to instruct madressah students as well. Civil society organisations can also be engaged through a modified “adopt a school” model to finance teachers for mainstream subjects and oversee their instruction in partnership with the madressahs.
The Second ‘E’: Employment
The PTI government has also made progress on the employability front. Providing madressah students with the opportunity to sit for regular matriculate and FA/FSc examinations allows them equal opportunity to apply for jobs or pursue further education. The madressah authorities have also demanded recognition of the final level of madressah education, the Shahadat-ul-Almiya, beyond its current limited utility of teaching Arabic or Islamic Studies in educational institutions. Negotiations on this point are ongoing between the government and the madressah representatives.
While these are steps in the right direction, they will only address the eligibility of madressah students to apply for mainstream jobs. The real yardstick for employers is likely to be the quality of education imparted in madressahs and the ability of madressah students to critically examine and analyse contemporary realities in line with the requirements of the profession they choose to pursue. This underscores why it is crucial to get the content creation and quality of instruction right.
Realistically, these improvements will only take effect in the medium term and the downstream employment gains would come even later. Therefore, in parallel to these reforms, the government must create immediate job opportunities for madressah students. Madressah graduates ought to be a special focus of the government’s youth-empowerment programmes, some of which explicitly aim at creating jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities for underprivileged youth. The recent agreement between the PTI government and the ITMP singles out vocational training as a possible avenue for madressah graduates. To make it promising, madressah graduates should be offered easy access and financial support to attend vocational training institutions whose trainees have high market demand.
The Third ‘E’: Engagement
Better employment prospects in the mainstream economy will offer madressah students fresh space for productive out-group engagement. But in order to address the polarising and alienating effects of a stratified education system, much more needs to be done. It is imperative to create positive interaction between madressah students from across maslaks and more broadly between youth from across education systems as well as the nearly 23 million out-of-school children. While previous governments have tried to dent the class barrier by attempting to institute quotas in elite schools for students from underprivileged backgrounds, it has not worked because these schools apply a de facto screening criterion based on the socio-economic backgrounds of the children. Real transformation will only come from a ‘whole of society’ approach that yields sustainable and constructive engagement. Volunteerism should be encouraged but, rather than being associated with a latent feeling of benevolence, opportunities for meaningful dialogue and activities that cut across ideological and socio-economic strata must be encouraged at all levels of schooling: from debating clubs to school treks and sports matches to community projects that encourage students to participate as equals. Civil society has been active in this space, but more needs to be done to test and prove scaleable models for meaningful engagement.
In addition to engagement among peers, healthy family networks are crucial in the context of madressah reform. Missing or shallow parental involvement in a child’s formative years has serious psychological implications in adulthood. The state and civil society organisations should work to advocate regular parental and extended family interaction with their children in the madressahs to strengthen and extend support systems. As parents gain insight through sustained engagement with their children, feedback loops to inform state authorities of the quality of education and any systemic discrimination, intimidation, abuse or related issues in madressahs should be created. The state should respond to these with utmost seriousness.
Offering Better Alternatives
In parallel to reforms within the madressah sector, alternatives to madressah education should be improved. Studies show that madressahs attract less children in areas where public school alternatives exist. Nor do all those who voluntarily enroll their children in madressahs necessarily wish to keep them in these institutions throughout their schooling. One way of reducing the burden on the madressah sector and offering a more balanced educational exposure to children is to develop more formalised off-ramps for madressah students to join mainstream education. The NISP 2018 recommends creating opportunities for lateral movement between five to 10 years of schooling. The government could pursue this as part of its ongoing reform efforts.
Madressah reform is a monumental task. The PTI government’s best chance of success lies in persisting with a reform approach that is aimed at holistically educating, employing, and engaging madressah students. This is also the only sustainable way to address the national security concerns linked to the sector.
Moeed Yusuf is a political scientist with a keen interest in youth and demographics. He is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia (2018)
Acknowledgements for research support: Emily Ashbridge, Syed Ahad Wasim and Noor Aftab
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 18th, 2019