THE debate over how to reform madressahs in Pakistan is not a new one. While seminaries in the country experienced explosive growth during the Zia years, producing the human raw material required for the anti-Soviet Afghan ‘jihad’, during the Musharraf era, and especially in the aftermath of 9/11, the establishment had second thoughts about these institutions. The various madressah reform campaigns over the years have had mixed success, with the clergy expectedly putting up resistance to any efforts by the state to encroach upon what they perceive to be their turf. However, the present government has also indicated that it wants to ‘mainstream’ the institutions. The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training says a directorate to oversee madressahs is almost ready, and that ulema are on board. A few days earlier, while meeting clerics, the prime minister had also remarked that ‘revolutionary’ reforms to overhaul seminaries were in the works.
If the government were to succeed in bringing madressahs into the mainstream, specifically in overseeing their curriculum and ensuring their registration, it would be a feat worth appreciating. However, this is easier said than done. For example, there are no concrete figures about how many seminaries — registered and otherwise — exist in the country; estimates range from 30,000 to 60,000. Moreover, ensuring that all sects and sub-sects that run madressahs are on board is another challenge. It would be wrong to say that all madressahs preach terror and extremism; many do not, but as the experiences of Lal Masjid as well as of the seminaries that helped produce sectarian and jihadi terrorists show, even a small unregulated minority is enough to challenge the writ of the state. What is more, there are relevant questions about what the students of madressahs will do after they graduate. Surely not all graduates can be absorbed as prayer leaders and Quran teachers. Therefore, these youngsters need life skills along with their religious education that can help them find gainful employment upon completing their courses at seminaries.
Madressah reform efforts, therefore, must focus on two key areas: eliminating extremist and sectarian content from the syllabus, and giving seminarians training that will help them find jobs in a wide variety of fields. While the state has indeed cracked down on seminaries linked to militant groups, more needs to be done to eliminate content that may fan extremism and sectarianism in the impressionable young minds that study in madressahs. Instead of focusing on the ‘othering’ of different sects and faiths, madressahs need to teach young pupils the compassion and civic duties that religion stresses. Moreover, cosmetic changes — such as introducing English and computer classes — will not do much unless madressah pupils are given vocational training that will make them employable in the job market. But most of all, the state needs to reform the public education system so that the majority of parents can send their wards to school.
Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2019