Pakistan’s ‘unreformed’ madrassa enterprise


Still no action


According to some reports, under the NAP, so far, Pakistan has shut down about 2,327 religious schools nationwide. Out of these about 2,300 have been shutdown in the province of Sindh alone while only two have been closed in Punjab




The civilian government in Pakistan continues to remain reluctant towards implementing the madrassa reform proposals which probably are the most essential part of the National Action Plan (NAP), the country’s 20 point strategy to fight extremism. While the state’s counter terrorism plan known as NAP has entered its third year, the government remains adamant from recognising the fact that unless the allegedly militancy oriented system of madrassa education, which primarily focuses on indoctrination of young minds with religious dogmas, is uprooted from Pakistan the state will remain locked in an unbounded struggle against the “merry-go-round” of militancy.

The common explanation that has been put forward for the state’s inability to regulate religious seminaries offers two reasons. The first is dealing with widely discussed resistance from the country’s religious elite while the second is associated with the government’s own disinterest and lack of political will in this regard.

If “tragedy” is the force that compels Pakistan’s leadership into making necessary and perhaps tough policy decisions then we have had enough of death; the story of our policies in this regard begins with the APS attack about two years ago and gradually moves towards different operations and counterterrorism measures largely in response to suicide bombings. The latest tragedy in this context is the tale of recent suicide attacks which again saw the country’s leadership coming together to denounce the incidents and giving people another operation known as the Radd-ul-Fasaad. While it’s an altogether different question how the government’s approved military operations have been carried out, the puzzle that continues to evade explanation is that why the state has been unable to enforce regulation of religious schools?

It is estimated that a decade ago, Pakistan had about 25,000 religious seminaries all across the country. Now, however, the number is estimated to be around 35,000. Under a madrassa reform process that was approved by the government of Pervez Musharraf, religious seminaries are required to register and make public their funding resources. However beyond the realm of what law demands, it’s a bitter reality that successive government since Musharraf’s era have not been able to ensure that religious seminaries register with the government let alone making public their financial records.

It’s ironic that the government in the last two and half years has been only focused on appeasing the conservative lobby for their support to ensure much needed implementation of madrassa reforms. While it’s clear that the country’s conservative right circles are not likely to support the government madrassa regulation plans, the state’s weakness to deal with the challenge has apparently become appalling. The challenge here is multi layered: it is one thing to convince the right wing elite about the necessity of liberal education and regulation of religious schools, it’s an altogether different challenge to make sure that sectarian oriented education is stamped out from the country.

While madrassas are an important social institution, not only in Pakistan but across the Muslim world, the dignified rationale behind these institutions formation has been challenged by numerous sectarian elements in Pakistan. It’s an open secret that majority of madrassas in Pakistan do not primarily focus on teaching basic religious education; rather their focus remains on teaching sectarian style education, which in a way is the beginning point that opens the door to radicalisation. The gradual intolerance and fanaticism which is introduced to students through such education isolates young minds which eventually results in thousands of protesters pouring into streets every other day to condemn the state’s progressive and liberal policies. Arguably, young minds that go through this process of religious indoctrination should not be considered blameworthy, for it’s the failure of the state’s policies which put them through such system in the first place.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent address of urging religious scholars to resent a counter narrative against extremist mindset or an address to the country’s Hindu community where he condemned forced religious conversions, doesn’t reflect anything beyond lip service to issues that deal with the deep-rooted ideological divisions in the country. According to some reports, under the NAP, so far, Pakistan has shut down about 2,327 religious schools nationwide. Out of these about 2,300 have been shutdown in the province of Sindh alone while only two have been closed in Punjab. While the actual number of religious seminaries in Pakistan is in thousands, the closure of 2,300 religious seminaries, whose details remain anonymous, doesn’t reflect in any way a headed policy action. Earlier this week, the chief of army staff stressed that the implementation of NAP needs to be expedited jointly by relevant stakeholders. Such requests by the military have been made before which are an indication that the civilian leadership’s role, which under NAP also involves early regulation of religious seminaries, has been deplorable.

The early implementation of madrassa reforms should therefore be an important component of any state level strategy that envisions a tolerant and progressive Pakistan.

Umair Jamal

Umair Jamal is a graduate of the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University. He is a research fellow with the Centre for Governance and Policy. He regularly writes for various media outlets. He can be contacted on Twitter: @UJAmaLs.