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Whither madressah reform?

Karachi, July 7(The News): While the government may feel that the recent events in and around Lal Masjid have been an unqualified success, there will hopefully be some significant introspection at the highest level for the governmentís failure so far to reform the madressah system in the country. In that sense, whatever happens at Lal Masjid, this is only the beginning because it would be fair to assume that the kind of brainwashed students seen at Jamia Hafsa and Lal Masjid may well be found at many other seminaries in the country. Despite many claims and pronouncements, often at the highest level, the fact is that the system is as unregulated as before and that the government seems to have little or no say in what is taught at most madressahs. According to the ministry of education, there are over 10,000 seminaries in the country, although the madressah organisations themselves claim that the number is over 13,000. As far as enrolment is concerned, the organisations say that between 1.5-1.7 million students are enrolled in madressahs, though the religious affairs minister has said it is likely to be around one million. Either way, the point remains that the system is significant in size and hence, like the mainstream system of schooling, needs to be under government regulation and monitoring.

There are many, including senior government functionaries, who are of the view that madressahs provide a much-needed service in a society like Pakistanís. Since most seminaries provide board and lodging as well, to many families from impoverished backgrounds, they are an affordable option of educating their children. Besides, given that religious education is much in demand in the country, such an opportunity becomes all the more attractive. Unfortunately, though, many madressahs do not teach the kind of religious education to their students that would make them better citizens who contribute to the society around them. If anything, many seminaries inculcate in their students a high level of intolerance of those of other faiths - and even sects. They do not teach worldly education that could be useful for their students and generally teach them ideas and thoughts that most sensible people would agree were better left to the Dark Ages. More dangerously, students are taught in many instances not to respect the law of the land - the idea being that they must obey a higher law, and in pursuit of doing so, it is all right to disobey the law of the land.

Furthermore, the students are taught that it is okay, in fact their duty, to impose their view of religion on the rest of society -- by force if need be - and that in doing so they will be fulfilling their duty as a good Muslim. No wonder then that most of the banned extremist/jihadi groups have been staffed by men who studied in madressahs and were often patronised by various seminaries and with links to mosques. Some argue that not all madressahs have ties to extremist or jihadi outfits, but they all by and large promote an ideology that justifies the actions of such groups. There are many clerics who post-July 3 have come out vociferously against the Lal Masjid brothers but one should be able to see the hypocrisy in this, because ideologically most of these clerics interpret religion in exactly the same way as Maulana Abdul Aziz would. Calls for imposing Sharia have been made many times before and the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa brigade isn't the only extremist group of its kind to have gone about imposing its version of religion on others. One will have to wait and see what movement takes place now on this very pressing matter because the government is in a position to use the Lal Masjid affair to proceed with the reforming of the whole system of madressah education. As it does this, it will have to keep in mind that a meaningful reform will not be possible unless the mainstream system of education is overhauled.
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