VIEW: Are madrassas producing Pakistanis?
Oct 2: Bringing change to the madrassas will help the moderates win the war of ideas
in Pakistan. And that is crucial for creating and sustaining a model Muslim
nation-state, where the rule of law trumps the rule of man, and every individual
has a stake in the state
Pakistan is a battleground for what is
actually a war of ideas, punctuated and overshadowed by armed confrontation
between extremists and a silent majority of moderate Pakistanis who want a
culturally, ethnically, and religiously inclusive nation-state.
the major underlying problems in dealing with extremist ideologies is the flawed
madrassa education system which provides recruits to extremist groups. It is
therefore imperative that Pakistani madrassas be reformed, so that students are
taught to become both good citizens and good Muslims.
Simply defined, a
madrassa is a religious school following an Islamic curriculum. However, this
curriculum is by no means uniform, as madrassas adhere to different schools of
religious thought and are parochial and sectarian in nature.
number around 20,000 in Pakistan: 13,000 of these, or 65 percent, are registered
with the federal government under the ITMD (Ittihad Tanzeemat Madaris Deenia)
federal board, which acts as the liaison between madrassas and the government.
Two million students currently attend these schools, and the alumni network is
about five million strong.
According to a recent report on Pakistan by
the US Institute of Peace (USIP), while most madrassa students come from
low-income families, children from higher-income families are three times more
likely to attend madrassas than public schools. A small percentage of all
students and alumni, not just within Pakistan but also from its diaspora
communities, are said to be directly or indirectly linked to various militant
organisations. For example, some of the UK-born 7/7 suicide bombers attended
certain Pakistani madrassas shortly before carrying out their attacks.
The issue of madrassa reform is not at all new. However, September 11
sped up the madrassa reform process by introducing massive US aid. More
specifically, the lion's share of the $300 million a year of US aid for
education goes to registered madrassas. However, some madrassas resist
registration in favour of more autonomy.
After the 9/11 Commission
Report, the US government made reform a top priority, and this centred on three
key elements: funding, curriculum change and teacher
Furthermore, the Pakistani ministries of Education and
Religious Affairs worked with the Commission on Higher Education in 2006 to
compile a White Paper focusing on a national-curriculum and teacher-training
programme promoting pluralism and patriotism within a framework of Islamic
values for both public and private schools. For example, the mission statement
declared that it is "the aim of the state of Pakistan to provide equal and ample
opportunity to all its citizens ... preparing him/her for life, livelihood and
The government has also instituted registration,
albeit voluntary, to monitor the madrassas. Inducements come in the form of
school supplies - computers, books and more.
Civil society organisations
are active partners in reform. The Washington DC-based International Centre for
Religion & Diplomacy has funded an extensive 3.5-year-long programme to
train madrassa teachers, and the Centre for Education and Consciousness (CEC) in
Lahore provides similar training throughout the country for public and private
schools, including madrassas.
Madrassa leaders have also initiated some
reform on their own. Professor Mufti Munib-ur-Rehman, president of a supervisory
board of 10,000 Sunni madrassas and ITMD member, argues that "madrassa reform
comes from within". According to him, "5,000 madrassas incorporated contemporary
subjects [liberal studies] earlier on without federal aid".
reforms instituted by the government, NGOs and madrassa leaders are steps in the
right direction, more changes are required. Our recommendations focus on further
efforts in funding, curriculum, training, and the reform process itself. Only
then can madrassas produce Pakistanis who are both Muslims and citizens of a
First, the funding process must be changed. Even though
American and Pakistani intelligence efforts curtailed madrassa funding from
militant organisations early on, simply cutting off money to the madrassas
without providing viable alternatives only drives them into the arms of foreign
donors, such as Salafi Saudis.
On the other hand, CEC chairperson Baela
Jamil has argued that excessive funding for madrassas will be detrimental to the
larger public-education sector. Peter Bergen of CNN has said as much when he
speaks of the government's tendency for "hyperventilation". Therefore, we
recommend a hybrid approach: cut foreign funding and provide much-needed
short-term grants, with the ultimate goal of achieving financial sustainability.
Second, efforts at curriculum change and teacher training should be
guided by the idea of an inclusive Pakistani national identity. However, total
inflexibility on the part of Islamabad when it comes to confessional or cultural
differences will only worsen sectarian separatism by alienating certain sections
of society. The goal must be to bring all Pakistanis together, not fracture
society even more. Small steps, such as eliminating sectarian and religious hate
material in textbooks used throughout the country, are an important part of this
Finally, the process of reform should itself be
reformed. For its part, Pakistan's government must incorporate the suggestions
of madrassa leaders. In turn, madrassa leaders must also become more
representative. For example, the ITMD does not have a single female member, even
though total female madrassa students outnumber their male counterparts,
according to board member and Pakistani MP Dr Ata-ur-Rahman.
recommendations alone cannot produce perfect results. But they are important
steps in the right direction. Bringing change to the madrassas will help the
moderates win the war of ideas in Pakistan. And that is crucial for creating and
sustaining a model Muslim nation-state, where the rule of law trumps the rule of
man, and every individual has a stake in the state.
Haider Mullick is
currently affiliated with The Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy Studies. He
can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jonathan Ruhe is a consultant with
Hudson Institute's Centre on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim
World, and a Master's Candidate in Security Studies at Georgetown's School of
Foreign Service. He can be contacted at email@example.com. In the summer of 2007
the authors co-led a project on Madrassa Education Reform in Pakistan - Daily Times