Pakistan: The Contested Issue Of Madrasa Modernization – Analysis


By Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya

Madrasa registration and regulation process of the Pakistani government has long been criticised and fought against in the country; an effort that was mainly started by Benazir Bhutto and then got token impetus during the Musharraf era. In the latest of such events, on March 1, the Ittehadul Tanzeemat-i-Madaris (ITM), an umbrella organisation of the five Wafaqs (federations) of madrasas, decided to strongly resist the government measures against madrasas and reject all “unconstitutional” steps of the rulers who, it alleged, are pursuing the agenda of the imperial powers. The decision was taken at a meeting held at Mansoora, Lahore, Jamaat-i-Islami’s headquarters. Maulana Abdul Malik, Mufti Munibur Rahman, Qari Hanif Jullandhry, Yasin Zafar and Syed Kazim Naqvi were among those who spoke.

The ITM is comprised of the Wafaqul Madaris (representing Deobandi school of thought); Tanzeemul Madaris Pakistan (Brelvi school of thought); Wafaqul Madaris Salfia (Ahl-e-Hadith school of thought); Wafaqul Madaris Shia and Jamat-e-Islami led Rabtatul Madaris. The five Wafaqs are the umbrella organisations of thousands of seminaries across the country.

The body sought an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to remove the misgivings regarding madrasas and religious scholars on this score. They also called for stopping the arrests of ulema and immediate release of those already in custody.

The decisions were announced by the heads of the five Wafaqs at a joint press conference after their meeting. They said Pakistan was an Islamic state and the constitution did not allow any anti-Islam activity. But, they alleged, the government was bent upon advancing the designs of the US and the West against Islam. They said nobody objected to the madrasas’ registration but the government was neither registering these institutions nor had it named the seminaries allegedly involved in terrorism.

Mufti Munibur Rahman said their talks with the government were also going on and they had already held talks with the federal secretaries of religious affairs, education and interior, but the crackdown on the seminaries was not suspended even for a single day. He said they had called upon the interior minister to make public names of the madrasas and individuals involved in unconstitutional activities so that the nation could know those involved in terrorism and assured that they would not defend such elements.

Earlier, Nawaz Sharif on February 18 ordered authorities to take stern action against madrasas involved in extremism and militancy in the country, in the wake of a series of deadly attacks on mosques. Religious seminaries (madrasas) and organisations involved in terror activities should be identified and proceeded against, he said, adding that his government was committed to eradicate terrorism and extremism.

Sharif asked the provincial governments to implement the National Action Plan (NAP) and take stern action against terrorist organisations. “We will have to take tough decisions to achieve the objectives of the National Action Plan,” he said. He stressed that terrorism must be dealt with sternly and militant and terrorist groups which were not ready to hold peace talks with the government would have to face action.

Pakistan faces the dilemma of how to deal with thousands of madrasas run by powerful mullahs in the country. It has been reported that several of them are linked to extremism and some of them were providing shelter to militants or sending jihadists.

Equally necessary is to stop the propagation of extremist thinking in the seminaries which inter alia promotes hatred against other sects and religions. The call for action would be seen as no more than a formality unless it is followed by concrete measures. The government has to prepare a code of conduct for the seminaries followed by necessary legislation. At present there is neither a code of conduct nor legislation governing the functioning of the bodies.

In the beginning of the year, it was announced that over 8,000 seminaries have not been registered with the ITM, or with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, raising a serious question over their curriculum’s legitimacy and their source of funding.

The findings show that around 8,249 seminaries which have enrolled 0.3 million students are not registered across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, revealed officials. These non-registered madaris/makatib did not fulfill the basic criteria set by the ministry of religious affairs. Around 4,135 madaris/makatib are operating without getting proper registration from the designated authorities in KP, the official said, adding that some 2,411 seminaries are unregistered in Punjab, 1,406 in Sindh and 266 in Balochistan.

In order to reform and regulate madrasas, it is critical to first understand the reason behind their rapid growth over the past decade. It is a known fact that madrasas fill up the vacuum in the provision of basic services such as education by the state. In most of the cases, the free education, lodging and food provided by madrasa administration to the deprived and downtrodden sections of the society encourage the poor to enroll their children to madrasas. The seminaries not only cater to the economic need, but also provide basic education in a country infamous for registered non-functional schools.

The need for madrassa reform and the revision of existing curricula picked up heat in the wake of the Peshawar school massacre when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif listed it as one of the steps on the NAP formulated to combat terrorism. A committee headed by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was set up to look after the registration and regulation of seminaries and the government was also advised to cease funding for madrasas from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Even though reforming madrasas into places of tolerance has been deemed the need of the hour by most political parties, the government and seminaries’ representatives are at loggerheads in this debate. Unfortunately, the two ends could never meet in Pakistan, as both are antagonistic and suspicious with strong threat perception.

Earlier in January also, certain representatives of madrasas, including Mufti Munibur Rahman, Mufti Muhammad Naeem, Qari Muhammad Hanif Jullandhry and other prominent religious leaders criticised the government for “singling them out” for reforms. He lamented that madrasas were told to submit their financial sources but there was little they could do since banks refused to open accounts for them — something he had written about repeatedly to the State Bank of Pakistan governor and finance minister, but to no avail.

Interestingly, also highlighting the fallacies of government’s attitude towards madrasa, the president of Tanzeemul Madaris Ahle Sunnat Mufti Muneebur Rehman argued that the government had never been serious about reforms. He cited the example of 2002 when funds worth Rs.5,759 million went to waste because the education ministry was unable to utilise them for madrasa reforms. “I still remember that former minister for education Zubaida Jalal had promised to provide us with 100 computers for our madrasas back in 2002. I am yet to receive those,” he says.

Similarly, a groundbreaking agreement signed by the government and ITM in 2010 opened up opportunities for thousands of madrasa students to get modern education, both in Pakistan and overseas, says former secretary religious affairs Vakil Ahmed. The agreement stated that the five boards of ITM would be recognised like other boards through an act of parliament or an executive order and linked to the ministry of education. Moreover, it prohibited teaching/publishing of any literature by madrasas that promotes militancy or sectarianism and laid groundwork for a more inclusive curriculum that included comparative studies of other religions along with compulsory contemporary subjects.

Senator Rehman Malik who signed this agreement in 2010 as the interior minister at the time, said that it was a comprehensive agreement between the clerics and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government but could not be presented to parliament due to certain reasons such as a shift in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism strategy and the launch of a military operation against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Swat and tribal areas. He, however, admitted that neither the government nor the clerics took the agreement too seriously as their attention was immediately diverted to the military operation and support of armed forces. But Mufti Naeem dubbed these repeated failings in the past as lack of political will and expressed similar apprehensions with the approach right now as well.

Policy paralysis has been a major impediment towards regularisation of madrasa curriculum and their registration with either ITM or government bodies. Moreover, since more than a decade the undue media attention and constant criticism have caused madrasas to get alienated from the process of modernization.

(Dr.Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. She can be reached at [email protected])

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