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September 19, 2015
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Reforming madressahs

Opinion

September 19, 2015

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As part of its National Action Plan, the government’s decision to launch a decisive crackdown against sectarian hate-mongers and all those madressahs that refuse to register under the new registration policy has created a stir amongst religio-political circles.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar declared that the government was all set to wage a war against all madressahs aiding, abetting or facilitating extremists and militants. The remarks followed a rare meeting of the top civil and military leadership with the Tanzeem-e-Ittehadul Madris (TIM), a conglomerate of five boards of madressahs. The meeting apparently made it clear that no madressah would be spared if found involved in any kind of extremism or terrorism-related activities.
During the course of the process a number of madressahs were closed down. Besides the geo-tagging of thousands of madressahs, some high-profile arrests have also been made against those found indulging in hate speech across the country.
Madressahs – considered by many as breeding grounds for terrorists and extremists – have been under fire since the war against terror started in late 2001 after the fall of the Afghan Taliban government in the wake of the US-led coalition forces attacks.
The mushrooming growth of madressahs can be traced back to the early 1990s when leaders of the Pakistan-based Afghan jihadi factions started establishing a chain of madressahs along the Pak-Afghan border to get a lion’s share ofthe funds flooding into Pakistan from the Gulf and the west. Every jihadi faction had to secure its share according to its following.
Since then the number of madressahs grew manifold. According to thePeace and Education Foundation (PEF), an Islamabad-based research organisation, there are 25,200 religious seminaries across the country. However, official estimates put the figure at 27,075 with over five million students enrolled. A good number of these madressahs are yet to be registered.
These

much-desired madressah reforms have been on the cards since long but the idea could not be materialised due to the trust deficit between the government and the madressah administrations.
The madressah administrations view even the current initiative as an attempt aimed at countering terrorism rather than reforming the madressah system, modifying its curricula and bringing it at par with the contemporary educational institutions. And this probably makes religious circles suspicious about the initiative.
One major criticism against this syatem is about the old and outdated syllabi taught at madressahs, which produces only a conservative mindset with a pre-scientific outlook. Such vision is hardly consumed in sectors other than the mosque and madressah. The fact is that the problem doesn’t lie in the curricula. Before embarking on the reforms process we need to understand the areas that need primary interventions.
A comparative content analysis of the various texts and syllabi taught at state-controlled and prestigious educational institutions contains even more hate material than the curricula taught at madressahs. Secondly, the periodicals, journals and magazines associated with various madressahs that carry hate material need to be monitored on a regular basis.
On the other front, exchange visits between madressah cadres and the civil society and academia from universities and colleges should be encouraged to bridge the gap, create a working relationship and initiate search for common ground.
Third, according to renowned religious scholars, part of the problem lies with the Darul Ifta – the section that issues verdicts. The decisions made and verdict issued here are mostly based on emotions rather than logical reasoning. A fresh graduate – at the age of 18-20 – after adding a degree of a mufti to his credit is authorised to issue a decree. These emotion-based rather than reason-based decrees are issued on the spot without allocating a proper time for research and investigation. This allows the beneficiary to misuse the decree. A mufti authorised to issue a decree must have some prerequisites, characteristics, required knowledge, maturity, and fulfil further criteria set by the relevant body of the said madressah.
The fourth, but most important, issue relates to the social seclusion of madressahs. At this end the problem lies with us – the civil society – for isolating this important section of our society. Why have we drawn a line between madressah and school (formal education) and madressah and the rest of the society? We have confined the role of a mullah to fateha khwani, nikah, funerals, prayers and on a broader note to the mosque and madressah only.
The government should have the moral courage to confess its lack of capacity in providing infrastructure and enough amount of funds to accommodate the over five million students from poor backgrounds enrolled in over 27,000 madressahs across the country at the moment. Besides education, these madressahs offer free-of-cost accommodation – lodging, boarding and food to those who can’t afford the high tuition fee of formal education. Even well off families can be seen these days on the roads in Lahore and Karachi to protest the rise in the already high fees of private schools.
There is no doubt that madressahs have produced great brains that are contributing to Islamic banking system, Shariah courts and other financial, judicial and political institutions.
The government should better introduce reforms, but with the right intentions. The already drawn vertical and horizontal lines between formal (secular) and religious education, state-owned and private institutions (again divided into various standards) should be revisited in favour of a uniform system of education.
A school or madressah – whatever you name it – should produce an imam, a religious scholar, a doctor, an engineer as well as a balanced military and political leadership. This system will give a sense of ownership to all the children of the soil alike and nobody would feel alienated.
The writer heads the FATA Research Centre (FRC) in Islamabad.
Email: [email protected]

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