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Inside the booming madressah economy

July 31: Take this with a pinch of salt, but let us admit that two weeks from its 60th birthday, Pakistan is ticking at a point where the question of who runs the country means little in relation to how it can be run. The gender of the next prime minister is of little importance, nor does it make a difference if the next president puts on a shirwani or a burqa, what really matters for the people is that they have a leader who is wise enough to understand the difficult challenges and strong enough to overcome them. One such impossible task at hand is to put the genie of the madressahs back into its original bottle.

Neutrally speaking, President Musharraf's eight-year rule, like the earlier two military governments of the 60s and 80s, turned out to be a period of decent economic growth. I do not mean to say that military governments are better economic managers and therefore there is no need for the country to return to 'true democracy'. But since 'growth' is all about data and figures there is hardly anything one can do to prove it otherwise. But one inherent dilemma which cuts across all military led governments has been the tremendous social and political pressures it leaves behind for the precarious civilian set ups to deal with, that ultimately proves to be the main reason for demise of civilian dispensation and the country's return to military rule. The phenomenal rise of madressahs during the recent years can be seen in the light of this vicious cycle in store for the next government, if there is one coming.

Like the growth in real estate and services, Pakistan is witnessing a massive boom in the madressah sector; according to researchers during the last eight years there has been over 150 per cent increase in the number of madressahs in and around Islamabad alone, a trend following the rise of real estate value in the capital.

At the time of independence, Pakistan inherited a meagre 200 odd madressahs, which as per government's conservative estimates has now increased to over 17000 (though some analyst put this number at 25-30,000). These religious schools are catering to about 2.5 to 3 million students and employ thousands of mullahs as teachers, mentors and instructors. How has this country managed to trigger and then sustain such a spectacular growth in madressahs is a secret worth sharing with the posterity.

A key driver of growth in the madressah sector, we are informed, is poverty -- an endemic problem of all developing countries -- something successive governments in the last six decades have wowed to eliminate but end failing to even reduce it to a manageable level. Interestingly on the one hand the country has struggled to improve enrolment in formal schools and has been grappling with issues of large scale drop outs at primary and secondary levels, on the other hand there is a stiff competition going on in the rural areas, where Pakistan's majority of poor live, to enrol their kids in madressahs mainly situated in cosmopolitan cities and sub-urban areas.

Perhaps there is more to it then the so-called poverty; it is indeed easy to blame the poor. But this could also be because of other reasons including failure of formal education system, social safety nets, and simply madressahs outperforming the formal education sector through better packages e.g. free education, food, boarding and almost free educational material. One cannot write off the growing religiosity, again not just in Pakistan, but all over the world, and not among Muslims but also amidst people adhering to other faiths.

There is also a need to analyse the source of funding of these madaris against the theological inclinations. Compared to Barelvis and Jam'at Islami driven schools, a number of Ahle-Hadith and Deobandi madaris have seen a big jump in numbers. The number of Shia madressahs has also grown sharply. But the biggest gain has been made by the Deobandi religious schools that have reportedly crossed the figure of 10 thousand. Taliban, including the ones in Islamabad, are products of Deobandi madressahs, while credit for introducing the likes of Lashkar-e-Taiba has been claimed by some Ahle-Hadith madaris in the past; hopefully President Musharraf might have broached these worrying trends to his interlocutors during the recent visit to Saudi Arabia. Philanthropists in brotherly countries including Iran must find overt, transparent and legal ways to collaborate and support a better madressah system, so that the government, media and more importantly public can play their role in the public interest.

Traditionally, madressahs have played a good role in imparting religious education and promoting literacy among downtrodden segments. It is also correct that only a small portion of the country's madaris can be branded as truly radical, but there is no guarantee that the moderate ones will stick to the right path or will not change their course at some point. What happened in the Lal Masjid / Madressah Hafsa and its aftermath has sent shivers down the spine of the ordinary souls. There is a need to strategically revisit the so-called madressah reforms. Conducting registration, teaching science, English and computer or equating the madaris' degree with the formal system will not work unless the institutions are cleansed from dangerously biased teachers, money and ideologies sowing the seeds of hatred and prejudices.

Many politicians and civil society activists openly raise fingers at certain quarters in the government for indoctrinating religious schools, first for the purpose of curving a strategic depth to Afghanistan and later for jihad in Kashmir; even if this is true, politicians and the civil society cannot absolve themselves from their responsibilities. What have we done to arrest this dangerous drift, except for organising a cultural extravaganza at Trafalgar Square in London? There is no reason why the public cannot and should not stand up to save the country from threats of anarchy and self-destruction which the growing number of suicide bombings have started to present.

By M Ismail Khan
The writer is based in Islamabad; he has a background in media, public policy and development. Email: (The news)
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