SUCCESSIVE governments over the decades have grappled with the challenge of regulating the tens of thousands of madressahs that exist in the country, with mixed results. The process had gained renewed vigour after the events of 9/11, when American pressure on the Musharraf administration to ‘do more’ in this regard set in motion the latest set of reform initiatives. However, nearly two decades down the line, little of substance has been done, mainly because of the staunch opposition of the clergy to any government intervention in what they see as their domain. Efforts by the current federal government are also being stonewalled by clerical resistance. As reported, out of the 30,000 or so madressahs in the country, only a paltry number — 295 — have applied for government registration. Moreover, seminarians took to the streets of the federal capital on Tuesday to resist the enactment of the Islamabad Capital Territory Waqf Properties Act, 2020, with religious elements claiming the legislation was “un-Islamic”. While the federal education minister feels clerics will eventually come round to the registration process, there is little to suggest the procedure will be smooth.
While madressahs have always been part of this society, the radicalisation of some seminaries as part of the Afghan ‘jihad’ — a state-sponsored experiment aided by the US and Saudi Arabia — created problems that are still with us. Long after the end of the Cold War, jihadi madressahs continue to contribute to extremism and sectarianism in society. This is not to say all seminaries are involved in violence. However, it is true that the vast majority of graduates of these institutions face major problems entering the job market, as society can only absorb a limited number of preachers. Also, many parents from low-income households send their children to madressahs because of the free lodging and food that they offer. Therefore, madressah reform must focus on two major areas: ensuring the curriculum is free of hate material and sectarian content, and providing seminarians the life skills, along with religious subjects, that will enable them to find gainful employment after graduating.
Considering the tumult that society currently faces, particularly with the stand-off between the government and opposition which has the support of some influential religious parties, going ahead with madressah reform initiatives will be an uphill task for the state. However, the state cannot afford to abandon this key reform initiative. While there may be foreign obligations to meet, such as FATF requirements, it is very much in Pakistan’s interest to bring seminaries into the mainstream. The government must keep channels open with the clerics, while remaining firmly committed to the reform agenda. A U-turn at this juncture will only take things back to square one. Moreover, in the long run, fixing the dilapidated public education system can provide a viable alternative to poor parents.
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2021