Can fundamentalism in Pakistan be traced back to madrassas?

She said, “I have been arguing for the longest time that in fact our state system is the biggest madrasa.”

Dania Ahmed July 08, 2015
In Pakistan, certain madrassas have a knack for producing terrorists. The government is aware of this yet it does not have a consistent stance regarding such madrassas. After the Peshawar school attack in December, the government made it a priority to regulate madrassas, but when the information minister, Pervaiz Rashid, spoke out against them last month, not a single member of government publicly supported him.

This conflicting treatment did not happen overnight. Fundamentalism in Pakistan can be traced back to Former Prime Ministers Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Ziaul Haq who wanted to ‘Islamicise’ the state. Zia’s 1979 education policy highlighted the priority to reorganise the state curricula around Islamic thought, which still permeates the textbooks used today. This is inconsistent with founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s dream for Pakistan: all citizens, irrespective of their faith, should be treated as equals. On the contrary, Islamisation has empowered radical mullahs and enabled certain madrassas to fuel extremist ideology.

In 1947, when Pakistan was created, there were only 189 madrassas; there are now an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 madrassas in Pakistan educating an estimated 1.8 million to 3.5 million children (exact numbers don’t exist as not all madrassas are registered). An estimated 10 to 15 per cent of madrassas are affiliated with extremist religious or political groups but as per the government, only 3 to 4 per cent have links to terrorism.

The majority of madrassas follow the Deobandi doctrine of Islam — an orthodox Sunni school of thought heavily influenced by Wahhabism. Most organisations that adhere to Deobandi — Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Majlis-e-Ahrar, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Taliban — have been proven to be part of terrorist activities.

Pakistani author and physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote:
“The greatest threat to Pakistan may be its abysmal education system.”

Madrassas are the most accessible source of education for many children, especially families in rural areas where public schools, if they exist at all, are under-resourced and under-staffed. Madrassas provide families with a solution; they often feed and house the students and tend to be free of cost. Even the 9/11 Commission found that many madrassas are “the only opportunity available for an education”. The state’s inability to provide accessible education to the general public is the crux of the problem.

Examination of madrassa curriculum incontrovertibly reveals intolerance and speaks volumes about the direction that Pakistan is headed. Instead of studying math, science, writing, and reading comprehension, students spend large portions of their days memorising religious materials, chanting war songs, and venerating the state. Religious doctrine even permeated the traditional material students did learn — science, geography, English, Urdu. A US diplomat commented saying:
“Children [at radical madrassas] are denied contact with the outside world and taught sectarian extremism, hatred for non-Muslims, and anti-Western/anti-Pakistan government philosophy.”

Such madrassas, teaching a distorted version of Islam, indoctrinate children to discriminate against non-Muslims, raising children to classify non-Muslims and Muslims outside their sects as kafirs (infidels), mushrakeen (pagans), dhimmis (non-Muslims), murtids (apostates), and enemies of the state. As a result, many of these madrassas produce graduates who lack critical and analytical thinking and are intolerant to others; graduates who go on to become maulvis who issue irrational fatwas and spew hate speech against minority groups.

Islam is a religion of many sects and exposing children to only a narrow mind-set strengthens the breeding ground for future intolerance and an endless cycle of sectarian violence. This problem runs deeper than sectarian violence; it impacts all minority religious and ethnic groups as well as the majority of Pakistan. Militant madrassas have educated Umar Mansoor, the mastermind behind the Peshawar school massacre, as well as Taliban apologist and hate speech aficionado Abdul Aziz.

How can Pakistan tease out the religious biases so deeply rooted in its society when many madrassas perpetuate them? Attempted many times, madrassa reform remains a myth. The government has taken little action to regulate madrassas linked to terrorism. The 2006 Madrassa Reform Project aimed to reform 8,000 schools by integrating a balance between formal and religious education and expanding curricula to include the teaching of social and hard sciences, religious tolerance, and human rights. Only 6.3% of the targeted madrassas were reached. In 2008, the education ministry reported it had only spent $4 million of the allotted $100 million for madrassa reform over the past six years. There has also been talk of a “madrassa reform committee” but little has been said about implementation.

One of the clauses from the National Action Plan (NAP) that debuted in December states:
“The registration and regulation of seminaries (madrassas) is being planned.”

And just this month, the Sindh government stated it will crackdown on 48 madrassas involved in terrorism. It may sound like progress is being made but these madrassas that have been reached are only a few of the thousands of madrassas that exist.

Thus far, any substantive, permanent reform has yet to occur. Government authorities hesitate to take action out of fear of backlash from religious authorities, and as a result, have institutionalised the madrassa system. Rubina Saigol, an education expert, said:
“I have been arguing for the longest time that in fact our state system is the biggest madrasa.”

But in order to end extremist indoctrination, stop the spread of sectarian violence, and counter Pakistan’s narrative of violence, the state must provide proper alternatives to madrassa education and regulate the curriculum. By devoting more money and resources to the education system, Pakistan can break its path of extremism and violence. Without these critical reforms, Pakistan is nothing more than an fundamentalist state that does not protect its minorities — a far cry from Jinnah’s founding vision.

This post originally appeared here
Dania Ahmed A media analyst on counterterrorism and counternarcotics strategies for Pakistan. She is graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University. She tweets @daniahmed_ (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Labeeb Zaman | 9 years ago | Reply It's a well written article. Couldn't agree more. Though I wouldn't agree on blaming all the Sunis since I personally know some who aren't extremists in their thinking but a very nice article.
abeer | 9 years ago | Reply It seems to be that you take Islam as taboo.terrorism has its roots irrespective of madrasaa or religious roots.there are many incidents in usa and other countries of mass shootings.will you hold any institute responsible for that?if you have so much complaint about learning religious books in madrasa ,to how much extent you believe in Qura'n and know the reward of memorizing it?it all deals with faith no are right that institutes should be reformed including subjects as islam urges us to get both worldly and religious knowledge. Lashkar e taiba,sipahe sahabaa are such a group who destroy peoples' safety and dignity and that has nothing to do who study Qur'an and Hadith in madrasa.they are wrong themselves and they are responsible for killings. It's like i can't blame a university for a group of killers...
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