The South Asia Channel

Indoctrinated by the Unregulated

Indoctrinated by the Unregulated

In Pakistan, madrassas have a knack for producing terrorists. The government is aware of this yet it does not have a consistent stance regarding 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 Zia-ul-Haq who wanted to Islamicize the state. Zia’s 1979 education policy highlighted the priority to reorganize 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, Islamization has empowered radical mullahs and enabled 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 percent of madrassas are affiliated with extremist religious or political groups but the government will only admit that 3-4 percent 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 organizations that adhere to Deobandi — Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Majlis-e-Ahrar-ul-Islam, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, 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 intolerant thought 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 memorizing religious materials, chanting war songs, and venerating the state. Religious doctrine even permeated the traditional material students did learn — science, geography, English, Urdu. A U.S. diplomat commented: “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.” 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, 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.

There can be no pluralism in Pakistani society when the majority of madrassas are Deobandi. Islam is a religion of many sects and exposing children to only a narrow mindset strengthens the breeding ground for future intolerance and an endless cycle of sectarian violence. This problem runs deeper than Islamic 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 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 percent 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. Point #10 of Sharif’s National Action Plan that debuted in December states: “the registration and regulation of seminaries (madrassas) is being planned.” And just this month, Sindh province 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 institutionalized the madrassa system, hate, and intolerance. 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 Islamization and violence. Without these critical reforms, Pakistan is nothing more than an Islamist state that does not protect its minorities — a far cry from Jinnah’s founding vision.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images