Muhammad Amir Rana

The madressah riddle

Muhammad Amir Rana

The state has yet to fully realise the sociocultural and political-economic inferences of religious education institutions or madressahs. Despite having long attempted to pursue the reform of this sector, successive governments have done little to change things on the ground mainly because of fear of a backlash and a reluctance to allocate resources.

Those leading the madressahs have taken advantage of the persisting confusion and have continued to strengthen their roots and support among the people.

Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry delivered a bold speech during a consultative conference in Islamabad some days back and rightly identified the root causes of religious extremism in society. While he did not altogether exculpate madressahs, his statement that public schools and colleges were the major source of extremism, and not madressahs, did not tell the whole story. However, his claim that teachers were hired in schools and colleges during the 1980s and 1990s as part of a plot to teach extremism was correct. He appeared to be referring to the Jamaat-i-Islami and its subsidiaries, which were a major partner of military dictator Ziaul Haq in his goal of encroaching on educational campuses, sowing the seeds of religious extremism and recruiting for ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

The minister might have deliberately not mentioned the fact that Zia’s jihad project was a multifold initiative and nurturing madressahs was an integral part of it. Without focusing on madressahs, poor Afghan refugees could not be engaged in ‘jihad’. No doubt, the US and Saudi Arabia were major sponsors of this project, but Gen Zia allowed the mushroom growth of madressahs across the country as part of his Islamisation agenda and also in order to create his political constituency. The extremism promoted on educational campuses and in madressahs closed the minds of the youth, and madressahs ‘distinguished’ themselves through capturing the narrative-formation process.

The state retains the Zia-era mindset and believes that madressahs aren’t the source of the problem.

Many madressahs in Pakistan are on the path of transformation and are offering science education to their students, but their numbers are not inspiring, and religious elites are also not ready to holistically revisit their education system. The reason is obvious: the madressah sector is catering to the financial and political needs of the religious elites as well. The institution of the madressah has become the primary political base for religious groups and religious-political parties, and continues to strictly adhere to its potentially explosive sectarian character. It is expanding and encroaching on the formal education sector and the state has failed to regulate the institution, despite its concerns and (half-hearted) measures.

The state has not come out of the Zia era mindset and still believes that the madressah is not the source of the problem, rather it is helping the state cater to the educational needs of the masses. Otherwise, the state would have to cut on other expenses to fulfil its educational obligations. The maximum concern the state could have about the madressahs is their possible links with terrorist groups and for that reason it might not want to antagonise the madressah establishment. In fact, state institutions have adopted the madressah elite’s narrative that the source of the problem lies with the public education institutions and not madressahs.

The supporters of the narrative allude to instances of terrorist violence committed by the radicalised youth of colleges and universities. Competition apart, one should not forget that madressah students and graduates have remained far more involved in terrorist activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Formal education institutions have not produced a fraction of the number of militants who enter the ranks of various national and international terrorist organisations which the madressahs belonging to different banned militant organisations have produced so far. It is true that until the mid-1990s, the madressahs’ human resource contribution to militant organisations was less compared to that of the formal educational institutions. The madressah institution was young at that time but then it took over the militant discourse in the country.

In recent decades, the state has made all-out efforts to make campuses apolitical, while the mad­ressah students remain politically and ideologically charged and vulnerable to be exploited for street protests and recruitment for military purposes. 

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