IN June 2009, working as a broadcast journalist I was live on air the Friday Pakistani senior cleric Sarfraz Naeemi, head of the Jaamia Naeemia madressah in Lahore was killed by a suicide bomber inside his office.

Questioning why Naeemi — opposed to suicide attacks and supportive of the Swat campaign against the Taliban — was killed by a Tehrik-i-Taliban foot soldier, I quickly learnt he was a moderate voice championing women's education, having modernised the seminary where he had been principal since 1998.

In May that same year, he had openly criticised suicide attacks and called the beheading of innocent Muslims 'un-Islamic'. One of the largest seminaries in Pakistan, the Jamia Naeemia, is said to be progressive, and equipped with a computer lab; Naeemi himself rode a motorbike, not travelling in an expensive car.

His school is not alone in its varied curriculum: a smaller seminary in Karachi teaches Spanish, leading certain critics to claim European languages happen to help when plotting militant attacks.

Religious seminaries may remain one of the root causes of militancy acting as terror havens, factories churning out militant 'graduates' when operating without government supervision.

But despite their bad reputation in Pakistan, with almost two million students attending the many thousands countrywide, they do not overshadow the failing state education system with its many challenges: low enrolment rates in state schools is now more of a risk factor than religious schooling; teacher absenteeism and administrative and financial constraints all point to why Pakistan's school-going children, especially girls are education-deprived.

When local madressahs fill the vacuum charging nominal fees, offering tuition and lodging, teaching how to read and write low-income parents do not hesitate to enrol their children. Economic deprivation doesn't question if religious indoctrination leads students to Afghanistan and beyond; poverty doesn't afford that luxury of discernment.It was in the 11th century when madressahs in the subcontinent flourished with political debate, focused on various schools of Islamic thought as centres of scientific and philosophic teaching. Today, Islamic teaching is not supplemented with a regular, well-rounded curriculum at most seminaries.

However, when the state fails, the madressah choice becomes viable making it all the more important to control the environment so puritanical views of Salafist Islam don't breed, but like in the Musharraf years clerics are averse to the idea.

They argue if the government has not supported seminaries financially they don't have the right to interfere in curriculum reform, and administrative affairs. Importantly, when students graduate their degrees are mostly unacceptable, and with few or no job opportunities, most end up teaching the Quran or fighting a religious war.

Senior clerics privy to this debate insist they aren't churning out terrorists but detractors, like physicist and activist, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy warn of a “clerical tsunami” if religious schools are left unregistered. One cannot deny their role in fomenting extremism, a legacy from the Zia period with funding from Arab states, later destroying the secular educational institutions under Bhutto.

However, research has proven education within religious seminaries worldwide when simply providing Islamic religious subjects can be less radicalising than school curricula. When investigating the backgrounds of the 9/11 hijackers, studies showed they varied in educational experience: hardly any are known to have studied exclusively at radical seminaries, although some trained at militant camps. Perfect Soldiers

A career jihadi has a professional degree but also 'work' experience in Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Terry McDermott's tells how these 19 hijackers “did not stand out for their religious or political activism”, and were from secular, educated Muslim families. There was little in their early lives to suggest that they would become what they did.

Interesting, the Education Emergency report also argues that madressahs in Pakistan are not producing militants and don't play a dominant role in providing education, but talks of an 'educational emergency' with 30 per cent of the country “living in extreme educational poverty” — urging the government to double education spending.

The cost of not educating Pakistan is like having a flood every year, it says. With only six per cent of children enrolled in religious schools, it's a fallacy such low-cost education opportunities train students for a militant career.

That the real cause of militancy is a poor education system has hardly seen acknowledgment from past and present governments. Unemployment also provides impetus for extremism where the demand for education exceeds the supply.

If access to education may have shown slight improvement in Pakistan's largest province of Punjab, the Monitoring and Implementation Unit, focused on educational projects claims a staggering 1.7 million school-going children still remain at home.

Although, interestingly, facilities at schools administered by banned militant groups in the province are well-funded, it is the poor quality of public education and inequitable access to schooling that fuels anti-state sentiment, nurturing a militant generation, disillusioned, jobless and mercenary.

The government's March for Education campaign unveiled stark statistics: all Pakistani children won't have access to primary education until 2040 or even later, with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2064 and Balochistan in 2100 or thereafter.

Constitutional changes give every Pakistani under 16 the right to an education and where India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will meet their educational commitments under UN Millennium Goals by 2015, Pakistan declares it won't be anywhere close to guaranteeing the same.

Shortage of schools says a provincial education minister is a reason why his province hasn't reached a 100 per cent enrolment because enough schools haven't been built to accommodate primary grade students. And if seminaries are here to stay, why no aggressive reform agenda to promote scientific and social disciplines, critical thinking and encourage dialogue among the different Muslim sects?

When literacy levels are so low with around 25 million children denied education and where less than 1.5 per cent of the GDP goes to public schools, it is pointless to focus solely on eliminating poverty, without education. With prevalent political undercurrents, all kinds of seminaries are in the business of education, some as trainer-recruiters under the guise of offering free (militant) tuition, others moderate clerics teaching a balanced curriculum: it's a mixed bag within a complex ostensibly non-secular educational environment.

The writer is senior assistant editor at the Herald.

razeshta@gmail.com

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