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January 30, 2015

The impossibility of Madrassah reforms


January 30, 2015

The madrassas, or religious seminaries, have become a sticking point in the implementation of the national action plan (NAP). Religious parties, led by JUI-F, first opposed the 21st amendment over the use of words like “religion” and “sect” in the draft, but later extended the united front to oppose military courts as well.
But their strong opposition to government plans of streamlining madrassas – of which approximately 20,000 are said to be littered over Pakistan – is more likely to prompt a confrontation than other issues.
The government, of course, was aware that the religious right would never allow an investigation into the seminaries, and their complicated system of funding and patronage. That is why it was expected to have worked out an actionable work plan, especially after Zarb-e-Azb and the renewed resolve after Peshawar. Yet there is no progress to speak of, and Islamabad has not shared its plans with the public.
“Everything we think we know about the madaaris and their relationship with extremism and militancy is a perception, not based on any solid research,” said Tariq Parvez, former DG, FIA and Nacta.
“The state is unwilling to conduct any such analysis; afraid of what it might find, but without knowing exactly what and where the problem is, how can we move to correct it?” And it is not just checking teacher-student records that is needed. “We have come across repeated cases where madrassas are not directly involved in raising militants, but they are infiltrated by members of outlawed groups posing as teacher, etc, who then scout for perspective members,” he added. Once appropriate students are short-listed, apparently, they are routed to special short summer courses, where the actual radicalisation takes place. So, even seminaries that are clean have been used as conduits for terrorist activity. Many governments have tried to regulate the seminaries, but efforts have always been met with stiff resistance. This

time, with the government and military openly announcing that all militants were fair game, it was expected that special focus would also be paid on the madrassas that produce them. But initial expectations are now giving way to disappointment. “I don’t see this playing out, we’ve heard it so many times before, but nothing has come of it, there will be a lot of noise, but that’s about it,” said Ahmad Rashid, internationally acclaimed author and an authority on militancy. “It won’t be any different this time.”
Follow the money
The only progress of note was made during the early Musharraf years, but it related more to upgrading syllabi than investigating their operations or powers pulling their strings.
“It wasn’t a complete failure, we made some progress on the inclusion of secular subjects and the registration of students, both local and foreign, but once elected government came into power, the focus shifted,” said Lt-Gen Moinuddin Haider, interior minister from 1999 to 2002.
Haider was tasked with spearheading the reforms project. Religio-political parties were initially hesitant, of course, but he hit a brick wall when the matter of difference between teachings of sects came up, and the hate some inculcate for others. “We never got any solid answers as to where the money to run these schools was coming from,” he added. Since many madrassa students have gone on to openly engage in militancy, it was natural to trace their funding, which is where the process becomes complicated, especially since names of friends kept coming up. “There was money coming in from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait and Qatar, all going to various seminaries, for example, in the guise of building a mosque or opening an orphanage,” the general added. “Probably, there was no monitoring as to how these funds were eventually used.”
And, of course, it doesn’t help that over years a complex web of funding has been put in place. The country has a large shadow economy, and the madrassas are just a part of it. “They don’t operate through banks, but through cash couriers, remittances, religious charity drives and of course foreign funding as well, and for any comprehensive effort to curb extremism and terrorism, this needs to be shut down,” Rashid weighed in.
So far, tracking the funding has gone nowhere. The Financial Monitoring Unit (FMU) is one of the organisations mandated with investigating terrorism funding, but it has been ineffectual. None of its findings have ever led to a conviction and it can take them years to investigate one case.
Intelligence vs evidence
Since there has never been a thorough investigation into seminaries, there is no official record of what the government might want to take action on. Recently, Maulana Fazlur Rahman complained very loudly against government raids to collect information about teachers and students at madrassas. Therefore, the only knowledge that the government has is based on intelligence reports, not audits or research.
“Actionable intelligence, unfortunately, does not translate into actionable evidence,” said Parvez. Another important aspect is that many of these schools are affiliated with legitimate charities, which have done immense work across the country. Charities like the Jamaat ud Dawa, whose alleged militant wing Lashkar e Taiba has been accused of the Mumbai terror attacks, make the situation very dangerous. “If the state moves against groups which have, for all intents and purposes, never attacked it, the blowback will be immense,” said Gen Haider. Also, the problem about credible evidence remains, and there is also the question of the military being stretched thin because of the NW operation.
Experts like Tariq Parvez suggest profiling ex-madrassa students currently in jails. If certain trends recur, enough evidence can be built against them. But the question of state will still remains unanswered. Just last week a lal masjid student was involved in a suicide attack in Wah, yet no action has been taken against the seminary, nor its chief cleric arrested, despite an outstanding warrant against him.
“Nothing can happen under the current Nawaz Sharif government, because they depend on some kind of tacit support from groups like the Jamiat-e-Ullema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI),” Ahmad noted.
And without official resolve, there is little chance of reforms. The author is a security and terrorism journalist based in Lahore. Email: [email protected] com Twitter: aasimzkhan

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