Reining in the madressahs

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LAST week the government issued an ordinance requiring all the madressahs in the country to get themselves registered with the authorities. In line with General Musharraf’s approach of treating the clerics with kid gloves, the ordinance takes the form of an amendment to the Societies’ Registration Act, 1860.

The newly added section 21 also makes it compulsory for the seminaries to submit an annual report of their activities and their audited accounts while they are prohibited from teaching or publishing material that promotes religious and sectarian hatred and militancy.

Does the government mean business this time? In 2002 it had promulgated the Deeni Madaris (Voluntary Registration and Regulation) Ordinance which was more elaborate than the amendment proposed now. It had even provided for the establishment of a federal and four provincial madressah education boards to supervise these institutions. This law came to naught because the religious parties opposed it tooth and nail. Moreover, since registration was voluntary, the madressahs exercised their right not to register.

The other day, President Musharraf told Ahmed Rashid, the internationally known author of The Taliban, he is “deadly serious” about a crackdown on the banned extremist groups operating under another name, the closure of all publications promoting hatred, creating new syllabi for the madressahs and their registration within six months.

He explained that earlier he had failed to carry out these measures as his hands were tied down by the confrontation with India, the general elections in 2002 and political insecurity at home and abroad. Now he says he feels stronger to act.

Under the new Ordinance the registration process is expected to be completed by November. It seems a bit unlikely given the fact that it is not even known precisely how many madressahs there are in the country. The number quoted varies from 9,000 to 15,000. Besides the amendment doesn’t make many procedures very clear. Who will register them and who will regulate their working? Do the madressah education boards to be created by the previous ordinance continue to be valid? In the absence of specific provisions a lot of confusion can be anticipated. It has not even been made clear what the outcome would be if a madressah violates any of the clauses of the ordinance. Would it be shut down? All this makes it difficult to place one’s confidence in the government’s will and capability to take effective action, especially when it has for all these years patronized the religious parties because of the political dividends it could derive from them.

Since many of the madressahs are known to be fertile breeding grounds of militancy and jihad — only last week a madressah in North Waziristan was found to be imparting military training to its students — not much will be achieved if the registration process is no more than a procedural one. Two important aspects of the madressahs need to be tackled judiciously. First is their control and second is what they teach.

Until now many of the madressahs have been controlled by political parties, which have set them up, and facilitated the flow of funds for them. These institutions with a political orientation provide the ‘foot soldiers’ for the extremist groups which subscribe to the belief that jihad against non-Muslims is mandatory. Funds are no problems. According to an International Crisis Group report, the madressahs collect over Rs 70 billion a year from within the country. But more than that is generated by external financing — from foreign states, private donors and Pakistani expatriates. With their accounts never audited, it is difficult to ascertain who is exercising control over these madressahs.

According to Dr Tariq Rahman, there are five central boards of madressahs controlling the institutions academically under them. They are the Deobandi’s Wafaq ul Madaris, the Barelvi’s Tanzim ul Madaris, the Shia’s Wafaq ul Madaris, the Jamaat-i-Islami’s Rabta-tul-Madaris al-Islamia and the Ahl-i-Hadith’s Wafq-ul-Madaris-al Salafia. These institutions are quite autonomous of the government and chalk out their own curricula and pedagogic methodology.

An attempt was made by the government in 2001 to regulate the madressahs’ curricula by introducing the Pakistan Madressah Education Board Ordinance. In this context, Dr Rahman quotes a document of the government on education sector reforms, “Three model institutions were established … Their curriculum includes subjects of English, mathematics, computer science, economics, political science, law and Pakistan studies.” But the ulema rejected this proposition.

In an excellent study of the madressahs, Dr Rahman describes the Dars-i-Nizami and how the memorizing of the canonical texts and their backward-looking nature symbolize the “stagnation and ossification” of knowledge. With Radd (refutation) being an intrinsic part of madressah education, students internalize a hatred and lack of respect for the beliefs of other sects, sub-sects, and religions.

Since they are not short of funds they can literally buy over their students who are provided boarding and lodging. Living on the premises, the students provide ample time and opportunity to be thoroughly indoctrinated.

It has been questioned if simply introducing new and modern subjects to this obscurantist syllabus would change the mindset of the students. This is a valid question because, according to Dr Rahman, many of the major madressahs have already introduced subjects like English, mathematics and general science. But what he emphasizes is that the ulema or teachers approved by them teach these subjects. “Thus the potential for secularization of these subjects, which is small in any case, is reduced to nothingness,” Dr Rahman writes in Denizens of an Alien World.

This leaves us wondering if the government will really succeed in controlling the madressahs by promulgating the new ordinance. The madressahs did not pose much of a problem for decades — the first organized madressah at Deoband was established in 1867 — and though politically their role was very negative, they remained on the sidelines. It was Ziaul Haq who brought the madressahs into the mainstream. They were provided support and financial assistance (some coming from the United States) to conduct jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet “infidels”.

Their numbers went up by leaps and bounds. According to Muhammad Qasim Zaman, a professor at Brown University and author of the Ulama in Contemporary Islam, there were 279 madressahs in Punjab run by the Shias, the Deobandis and the Barelvis in 1971. In 1994 their number had jumped up to 2,288. Once the trend started the momentum built up even though Ziaul Haq was no more on the scene and the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan. Today the number of madressahs in Pakistan are estimated to be about 10,000.

Of greater concern is the ubiquitous effect the madressahs have had on the religious culture in Pakistan. They have made their inroads into politics and, worse still, are exerting a powerful influence on education in Pakistan. While the government worries about the curricula of the madressah, it should show more concern for what is being taught in the supposedly secular schools all over the country.

Analysing language-wise the ideological contents (Pakistani nationalism, Islam and the military) of course books from Class I to Class 10, Dr Rahman found the Urdu books had 40 per cent of such contents that glorified wars and conquests by the Muslims and carried derogative references of non-Muslims, the West and so on. In fact, nearly 40 per cent of the Urdu medium school students advocated war with India in 2003. Only 47 per cent of them want the Hindus in the country to be given equal rights to jobs. Even less — 46 per cent — supported equality for the Qadianis.

With this mindset proliferating our society, simply reforming the madressahs will not be enough. A start has to be made on multiple fronts. The job of reforming the school curricula, which was started earlier but abandoned when the religious parties resisted it and raised a furore, should be undertaken again and more firmly this time.