“The intelligence agencies were back at my house last week,” says a girl who formerly taught at Jamia Hafsa. “They asked, ‘Where are the girls who were at Jamia Hafsa? What are they doing now?’”
“There isn’t as much of a focus on thieves as there is on madrassas,” says Abdul Quddus, the Wafaqul Madaris Arabia spokesman, when asked about government scrutiny. “Our madrassas are open at any time for anyone to visit.”
But the government only seems interested, he says, when it wants to be seen to be doing something. “The last raid on madrassas was while there were visiting American dignitaries in town, which I feel was their way of showing that they had taken some action,” he says.
Jamia Hafsa’s Umme Hassan struck a more diplomatic note. “The government has its own ways. It checks everything. Officials often come with forms to fill and we comply.”
Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa says nobody will be able to enforce reforms on madrassas, because religion has gotten “out of the control” of those who would want to implement reforms. “These are madrassas with huge walls. People can’t come in and out. They are secretive places.”
Those who run madrassas feel they are wrongly blamed for the spread of extremism, pointing to the US role in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the real reasons for fuelling antagonism.
The spotlight has made madrassas wary of accepting students from the tribal areas, because a student from Waziristan will raise questions from security agencies.
An example Quddus cites is of when a Gilgit-Baltistan local was identified as a terrorist suspect. “They came to every madrassa and questioned every student from Gilgit-Baltistan about their links. It later turned out that the suspect was wrongly identified.”
Terrorism suspects have reportedly taken refuge in mosques and madrassas before conducting attacks. According to a New York Times report, the perpetrators of the attacks on Ahmedi places of worship in Lahore stayed at the Tableeghi Jamaat’s headquarters in Raiwind and at the Ibrahim Mosque, a centre run by the Jamaat.
Lal Masjid’s naib khateeb Maulana Amir Siddiq told The Express Tribune, “We do not accept anyone without a reference. But such a situation does arise. Often poor people arrive and they want a place to stay as they cannot afford lodging in Islamabad.”
A young madrassa student told The Express Tribune that he feels he is singled out more often by the police for checking, and “treated differently” by society.
Quddus also questions the common notion that madrassa enrollment is fuelled by the worsening economic conditions. “Less than five per cent of students enroll because of economic reasons. The rest are here because they want a religious education, and the enrollment of students from well-to-do backgrounds has been steadily increasing.”
As if on cue, a young student enters with a tray of tea. His father is the nazim of his area.
Recent research in the west has absolved most madrassas of the charge of promoting extremism. A June 2010 report by the Brookings Institute stated, “A systematic review of the complex and sometimes contradictory data on madrassas in Pakistan demonstrates that a small number of militant madrassas directly contribute to militancy and are a serious security concern.”
Siddiqa disagrees. “What has happened very systematically is that a certain consensus has been built in the west, where they incorrectly assume that extremism has nothing to do with madrassas,” she says.
“Madrassas not only spread a certain kind of ideology to students, they also spread it in society, to the families and extended families of these students. Saleem H Ali did a much better study (Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassas), and found that madrassas also spread sectarian hatred, and do not allow pupils and society to look at alternative perspectives within the religious discourse.”
Others argue that private schools, just like madrassas, have biases too. But Siddiqa says their problems are not as bad as madrassas.
“There is an overall close-mindedness in our education system,” Siddiqa says, “whether it is in the study of history or social sciences. But then madrassas are even worse, because they provide a textual basis for those ideas. Once someone says it has been passed down from the Holy Quran, there is no challenging that. These are not the traditional madrassas, which were much more open and followed the true spirit of discourse and inquiry, and did not have militants hanging around them.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 28th, 2011.