The Pakistani state has yet to fully realise the socio-cultural and political-economic inferences of religious education institutions or madrasas.

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

The country’s 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 madrasas, his statement that public schools and colleges were the major source of extremism, and not madrasas, 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 Zia-ul-Haq in his goal of encroaching on educational campuses, sowing the seeds of religious extremism and recruiting for “jihad” in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Zia’s jihad project

The minister might have deliberately not mentioned the fact that Zia’s jihad project was a multifold initiative and nurturing madrasas was an integral part of it. Without focusing on madrasas, poor Afghan refugees could not be engaged in “jihad”.

No doubt, the United States and Saudi Arabia were major sponsors of this project, but Zia-ul-Haq allowed the mushroom growth of madrasas 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 madrasas closed the minds of the youth, and madrasas “distinguished” themselves through capturing the narrative-formation process.

Keeping the information minister’s speech in mind, it is useful to take note of a report by an international media outlet on Afghan madrasas students demanding that the Taliban include science subjects in their curriculum – apart from advocating changes to the curriculum for girls’ education.

Though the report is about a madrasa in Afghanistan’s Paktia province, many experts have depicted it as a positive indication that sane voices such as these will gradually build pressure on the Taliban to accommodate their demands. One wonders if the Afghan Taliban, who were the product of Pakistani madrasas, can become a role model for the latter to bring about changes in their curriculum.

A government school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo credit: AFP Photo

Many madrasas 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 madrasa sector is catering to the financial and political needs of the religious elites as well.

The institution of the madrasa 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.

Terror links

The Pakistani state has not come out of the Zia era mindset and still believes that the madrasa 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 madrasa is their possible links with terrorist groups and for that reason, it might not want to antagonise the madrasa establishment. In fact, state institutions have adopted the madrasa elite’s narrative that the source of the problem lies with the public education institutions and not madrasa.

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 madrasa 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 madrasa belonging to different banned militant organisations have produced so far.

It is true that until the mid-1990s, the madrasas’ human resource contribution to militant organisations was less compared to that of the formal educational institutions. The madrasa institution was young at that time but then it took over the militant discourse in the country.

In recent decades, the Pakistani 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.

Sectarian nature

The state has also failed to understand the equation between madrasa, mosque and school. Almost all mosques get their imams, or prayer leaders, from madrasas, who preach the same version of Islam they learned at their alma mater and influence the public in sectarian terms.

An imam is a source of inspiration for the people, especially the lower-income groups that consult him for their spiritual and even physical health needs. A taweez (amulet) matters more to them than medicine as they may not have to pay for it.

Secondly, more and more madrasa graduates are now joining public education institutions as teachers and are influencing young minds in a variety of ways. The madrasa mindset is at its full play in society and is responsible for promoting two major sociopolitical conflicts, which certainly have security implications: first, the sectarian divide and second, ideological radicalism.

The madrasa mindset is very conventional and takes any new idea of moderation as a conspiracy against its interests. So far, it has successfully resisted the state’s attempts at reform. However, the madrasa leadership is aware of the evolving challenge of extremism.

The conference that Chaudhry addressed also had a dedicated session for religious scholars and they agreed that the sectarian divide is increasing in society and that the challenge of extremism will become more complex in the near future.

This article first appeared in Dawn.