In the aftermath of 9/11, madrassas became the subject of much scrutiny and questioning. The foreign media flocked to Pakistan to look at the schools that had churned out young men who went on to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and then again in the US-led war in 2001.
Consequently, madrassa reform became a much-touted term during the 2000s. Political parties campaigning in the 2008 elections also vowed to reform madrassas, following renewed interest in the issue under General Pervez Musharraf.
But like in the past, the latest effort to introduce reforms in madrassas has resulted in little action. In October, the Ittehad Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan (ITMP) and the Ministry of Interior (MoI) signed an agreement on some major issues, including additions to the madrassa curriculum.
“We reached an agreement on all the key principles,” says Abdul Quddus, spokesman for the Wafaqul Madaris al Arabia. The ITMP – which estimates that at least two million students are enrolled in madrassas is an umbrella for the Wafaqul Madaris al Arabia, Tanzeemul Madaris, Wafaqul Madaris al Salafia, Wafaqul Madaris Shia and Rabitaul Madaris.
“We had decided that this time we would not just listen to verbal announcements. A good working environment was created and we went ahead. A committee was supposed to start working on this. That hasn’t happened yet. We want practical implementation, but this is how it is with the government,” says Quddus.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the National Assembly recently that his ministry had not set up a committee to deal with madrassa reform.
Despite the lack of movement from the government, Quddus believes madrassas have internally felt the need to change and done so. “Madrassas have changed considerably in the past 20 years. We feel that as times change, new things such as the study of computers should be introduced. Over the years, we have introduced primary and secondary education, and follow the federal board’s syllabus for Matric and Intermediate. However, we will not take dictation on this matter from people who do not know how to recite Surah Ikhlas or think the Quran has 40 chapters,” he says.
Zahid Hussain, an expert on militant Islam in Pakistan and the author of Frontline Pakistan and The Scorpion’s Tail, says madrassas need to go beyond updating their curriculum. “Even if some madrassas are also teaching English or mathematics, the overall structure of education there does not bring about anything. The environment in the madrassas is what creates extremism,” he says.
Hussain says madrassas would not be such an issue if Pakistan had an adequate public school system. “The real issue is not controlling the madrassas but providing an alternative,” he says.
“Madrassas are expanding, and there is no sign of their role being reduced. In most cases, the poor can’t afford to send their children to school so they tend to send them to madrassas. The government has not been able to fulfil its responsibility of providing education.”
Key elements of the agreement reached between the MoI and the ITMP included that “no madrassa shall teach or publish any literature which promotes militancy or spreads sectarianism” and “every madrassa shall abide by the Societies Registration Act of 1860 as amended by Ordinance XIX of 2005, provided that nothing contained therein shall bar the comparative study of various religions or schools of thought or the study of any other subject covered by the Holy Quran, Sunnah or Islamic jurisprudence.”
The insertion of the words ‘comparative study’ was to ensure that madrassas do not engage in spreading sectarianism a key issue associated with some of them but would be allowed to discuss other sects and religions.
Another issue that is linked to madrassa reforms is the registration of madrassas and their growth throughout Pakistan, especially in southern Punjab. Illegally constructed madrassas – often built by adding on rooms to existing mosques – are a sore point for city development officials. On the other hand, scores of unregistered madrassas escape the scrutiny of the government.
“Most madrassas are not registered, so you can’t even talk about reforms,” says Hussain.
Wakil Ahmed Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Madrassa Education Board, believes recognising madrassa boards as educational boards will automatically lead to madrassas registering with a board in order to get a recognised certificate for their graduates.
“If you confuse the registration of madrassas with the enforcement of reforms, madrassas tend to reject them (reforms),” he says. “The process needs to be about registration, regularisation and mainstreaming.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 26th, 2011.