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July 31, 2015

Unravelling the madrassa paradox


July 31, 2015

Bearing in mind the persistent calls for greater checks on the institution of madrassas, it is hardly a surprise that the rise in religious fundamentalism across Pakistan has often led to raging debates over whether these seminaries continue to serve as militant breeding grounds or a source of shelter and education for the disadvantaged.
Similarly, repeated attempts to bring these institutions under a framework failed due to a lack of effort to understand the problems being faced by madrassa students.
These points were focused upon in a policy report titled ‘The Madrassa Conundrum’, authored by Umair Khalil and published by HIVE [karachi], and thoroughly discussed at a panel discussion held at the report’s launch on Thursday.
Moderated by National Students Federation’s central organiser Khurram Ali, the panel comprised of noted historian, columnist and researcher Dr Mubarak Ali, Szabist Head of Social Sciences Department Dr Riaz Sheikh and Szabist Director Academics Dr Tayyaba Tamim.
Rise in seminaries
According to the research findings, there were a total of 300 seminaries post-partition Pakistan and the current figure has reached a staggering 35,000.
Moreover, a massive increase in Deobandi madrassas was witnessed during the Soviet-Afghan War period. Dr Ali, while explaining the dynamics behind the massive increase, opined that it was important to revisit the historical background of madrassas.
The institution germinated in the 11th century in Khurasan during the Islamic Movement which in turn afforded space for Muftis, Waiz and other religious figures to assume positions of authority, he said. It was this drive for legitimacy which led the differing sects to establish their own madrassas, each aiming for the security of power.
“The individualistic establishment of these religious schools resulted in clashes among the sects and widened the gap between them. It was this sectarian fissure which, funded by

petrodollars, was exploited during the Soviet-Afghan War after the Gulf States were found to be in possession of huge oil reserves,” he claimed.
Dr Sheikh believed that the increase in a particular sect’s religious schools, which was itself a minority among the other sects in Pakistan, was because of “the state’s policy to encourage an uprising on religious grounds to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, as it was the only school of thought which supported Jihad.”
The class debate
The extensive commercialisation of education excluded the disadvantaged from the fold of those considered to have acquired the accepted standard of education, Dr Ali said while responding to whether the class divide proved to be a fuel for religious seminaries.
Dr Sheikh, however, claimed the issue had its fair share of grey areas, hence, it would be wrong to try and draw a simplistic conclusion. He corroborated his opinion through the example of a madrassa he visited in Korangi where the sophisticated infrastructure, which included ATM machines, left him astounded.
He, however, did not entirely rule out economic deprivation as a factor, but stated that its influence gradually spilled over to other factors. Dr Tayyaba also considered the view that people belonging to lower economic backgrounds were the only ones joining madrassas an “over-generalisation”. However, she claimed that a lack of social integration between those receiving education from a madrassa and those attending public private schools did add to a lack of dialogue between the two schools of thought, consequently, leading to alienation of the seminary student.
Pointing out the isolation of the madrassa student but a massive integration of the same ideology in society, the moderator inquired after the reasons behind the coexistence of the otherwise extremely different notions. Acknowledging the integration of the ideology, Dr Sheikh said the assimilation of ideas was done by manipulating the patriotism of Pakistanis living in the Middle East. “Redefining the originally secular nature of the Palestine movement through a religious lens is among several other tactics that were used to provide space for militant ideology.”
Recruitment of jihadis
The report while quoting Christine Fair’s research – in which she states that madrassas proved to be a hotbed for disseminating ideology but were not a major source of militant recruitment – found that, out of 141 cases studied by Fair, only 9 turned out to have acquired education from a seminary.
Dr Ali, while agreeing with the finding, stated that religious seminaries played a minor role in providing human resource for militant factions. He, though, highlighted that the stifling nature of our educational curriculum proved inimical to progressive values terminating from a critical mind. Dr Sheikh, however, maintained that the first colour of Jihadi culture in Pakistan was the Afghan Mujahideen and when that workforce was spent, the state witnessed an enormous surge in madrassas as a new avenue of recruitment.
Dr Tayyaba also did not completely agree with the finding and stated that when a child is sent to a religious schools at an age where he is incapable of differentiating between right and wrong, the ideas he is acquainted with may not directly get him to join a militant outfit but may sow the seed of religious militancy in his mind. The policy report among several recommendations called for establishing a single body, under parliamentary oversight, to regulate as well as develop madrassa curriculum, along with efforts for comprehensive educational reforms in public, private and religious institutions and improved quality education for low-income groups.

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