Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat- Pakistan is currently embroiled in a vicious war as it seeks to impose its control over 12 thousand madrassas (religious schools) throughout the country where more than 1.7 million students are taught about Islam. So far, the madrassas have resisted government attempts to reign them in and the 500 year-old institutions continue to play an important socio-economic role in the lives of their students. They offer their students lodging and food as well as financial and moral support.
Madrassas are a way of life not just a source of education.
President Pervez Musharraf’s government has earmarked 33.5 million dollars to reform the country’s religious schools. Wakil Ahmad Khan, an official at the Ministry for Religious Affairs, told Asharq al Awsat that the allocated sum was designed to buy new computers and pay the salaries of teachers of certain subjects such as English, Urdu, Math and computer science. However, officials in the madrassas and religious figures are opposed to the government’s reform plan.
The latest talks between the government and heads of religious schools failed to appease the animosity between the two sides. Religious figures and school leaders have vowed to resist the government’s plans and to refuse its demand to dismiss foreign students. Muslim leaders condemn what they see as government meddling in the internal affairs of madrassas, which have existed for 500 years.
In their current form, madrassas were first established in the Indian
sub-continent in the 16th century, when the Muslim’s political powers began to decline. After the fall of the Moghul Empire, the Muslims began to establish religious institutes in order to preserve their religious traditions in the face of increasing political chaos. In number of madrassas increased during the reign of Mohammed Ziaulhaq, when the country was supporting the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation.
Despite the presence of 1.7 million students enrolled in 12 thousand
schools, the madrassas are considered as inferior to the state-run education system. The curriculum dates back to the 18th century and Muslim scholars continue to resist changes to some of the taught material, which goes back to the 12th or 13th centuries.
The Jamaat Muhammadi madrassa in Islamabad is one of the country’s largest.
Its director, Qari Raes Akhtar, admitted he supports the Taliban but denied that his students traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Americans.
Most madrassas located close to the Afghan border have played a significant role in supporting the Taliban regime in its early stages. Given that more than half the students join religious schools for economic reasons, madrassas became a pool for which to select candidates to join the fighting in Afghanistan.
The strategy of Musharraf’s government is to stop madrassas from acting as breeding grounds for extremism. This follows the discovery that the July 7 London bombers were linked to Pakistan’s religious schools. However, education experts have criticized the government’s plans as superficial.
They include introducing non-religious subjects to the curriculum such as Math, English and computer science.
However, as reform is becoming more official, the powerful religious lobby is increasingly resorted to lure madrassa graduates by offering them jobs and recognizing their degrees as equivalent to those of mainstream education.
Meanwhile, several concessions were made to the madrassas following talks between the government and five leading religious institutions. For example, the cabinet agreed to take the necessary steps to recognize the degrees awarded by religious schools enabling their holders to be eligible for more jobs. This has been a major objective for religious school leaders throughout the last two decades.
Two years ago, when president Musharraf initiated the reforms, the religious lobby condemned them as an attack on Islam. With time, however, they have toned down their language and signaled their readiness to listen to the government’s plans.
In the last six months, discussions have taken place between the ministries concerned and madrassa leaders, resulting in better understanding, as Ijaz al Haq, the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs told Asharq al Awsat.
Al Haq indicated that the government had achieved its objectives by
registering religious schools and reaching an understanding with a number of religious scholars in order to reform the religious education sector. In spite of this, lingering mistrust remains. The religious lobby believes that the government will not stop until it achieves total control over Islamic schools. For its part, the government underlined to a delegation of heads of madrassas that only the relevant Ministry will be dealing with them.
According to Hanif Jalandari, Secretary General of the Federation of
Pakistani Islamic Schools, the security and intelligence services are
conducting a campaign against the madrassas’ administration, a matter that is strongly criticized by religious schools.
The issue of dismissing foreign students has exacerbated the animosity between the government and the religious leaders. Last week, senior religious scholars vowed to resist any government efforts to expel foreign madrassa students.
“We want to make clear that we will resist by force any attempt by the government to interfere in the internal affairs of religious schools and that we will never hand over any foreign students to be expelled,” they said in a statement.
It appears as if the Musharraf government is resisting a direct
confrontation with the madrassas after it postponed the final deadline of 31 December 2005 to hand over foreign students, who number 1400. The Prime Minister Shawkat Aziz announced his government intended to continue its reforms in consultation with religious scholars and madrassa leaders in order to modernize religious education.
Government officials have indicated that talks between the two sides will continue, adding that the government is seeking gradual reform and will never tolerate extremism.