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Madressah reforms?

April 2008: In his maiden speech to the National Assembly, the prime minister identified the fight against terrorism as a national priority. He declared: "The war on terror has become our war, because it has posed serious threats to our own country."

The indiscriminate terrorism-generated bloodletting in 2007 and in the first quarter of the current year, has created the perception that violence is endemic and peace alien to Pakistan. As the prime minister spoke, sectarian clashes were raging in Kohat resulting in 22 deaths (50 according to unofficial accounts). The city even has an Al Qaeda monument that commemorates the killing of a bus-load of foreign terrorists by Pakistani forces in 2001.

The measures enunciated by Gilani to deal with the problem of extremist violence include a comprehensive economic and social package for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the prospective scrapping of the Frontier Crimes Regulation and madressah reforms. For the latter, he announced the establishment of a Madressah Welfare Authority to reform the seminaries in Pakistan which have grown exponentially after the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan.

However even before the echoes of the prime minister's speech had faded, there was criticism from the JUI-F, a component of the coalition. Maulana Fazlur Rahman accused Gilani of merely emulating the previous government's 'anti-madressah' policy. His accusation is belied by Chaudhry Shujaat's recent statement describing madressahs as 'the ideological fortresses of the country'. The obvious implication is that the former ruling coalition was as much against madressah reform as the religious parties and that they will not countenance any form of control on the seminaries or their proliferation.

In 1947, there were 245 madressahs in Pakistan. The current estimates put their number at 20,000 with approximately 1.8 million students enrolled. However, Steven Coll's computation in his bestselling Ghost Wars claims that there were approximately 900 madressahs by 1971 but by mid-1988 the number soared to 8,000 recognised religious schools and 'an estimated 25,000 unregistered ones'.

The rejectionist and regressive policies of these madressahs have produced a breed of religiously intolerant scholars. Their obscurantist worldview has, since 9/11, increasingly found expression in militancy and violence.

The ministry of interior has, in the past, tried to play down the enormity of the problem by advancing the unconvincing argument that only around 10 per cent of the seminaries have a militant wing while the remaining 90 per cent provide board, lodging and education to millions of children whose families live in poverty.

This not only smacks of complacency but is tantamount to admitting that the state has failed in its responsibility of providing basic amenities to its citizens. Furthermore, the brainwashing imparted to students in the seminaries is not education as it does not ensure either gainful employment or a seat in higher institutions.

As long as there continues to be a lack of proper education, exploitation by those with violence-based agendas will persist. It is disconcerting that despite its urgency, education projects are put on the backburner by successive governments. The big chunk of the population is, therefore, left with no choice but to send their children to madressahs.

Education is witnessing a decline in most Islamic countries. This is evident from a telling comment in a survey conducted by the United Nations Development Programme in July 2002: "In the 1,000 years since the reign of the Caliph Mamoun, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in a single year." According to the same UNDP report, among the approximately 280 million Arabs, 65 million adults are illiterate and 10 million children do not attend any school.

A recent study done by a Pakistani scholar shows that 57 Muslim majority countries have an average of 10 universities each. This means that there are not even 600 universities catering to 1.5 billion Muslims. In contrast, India has 8,407 universities and the US 5,758. No less appalling is the finding that in the Islamic world there are less than 300,000 who qualify as scientists i.e. 230 scientists per one million Muslims. In comparison, the US has 1.1 million scientists (4,099 per million) and Japan 700,000 (5,095 per million).

The English jurist and politician, Lord Brougham (1778-1868), once said: "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern but impossible to enslave." If the lack of education leads to the enslavement of people, then this also makes them vulnerable to exploitation in the guise of religion and this is precisely what has been happening in Pakistan.

In the past a combination of autocratic regimes and clerics has not allowed a knowledge-based society to flourish in Pakistan. Madressahs have only reinforced obscurantism and spawned violence in the name of religion. The main damage was done in the Ziaul Haq years.

In a recent article, Dr Tariq Rahman wrote: "The use of religion to legitimise the rule of the elite, as has been happening so far, will also have to stop. This would mean the reversal of laws enacted during Ziaul Haq's rule which are misused and give more power to the religious lobby."

Prime Minister Gilani's call for madressah reform is on track. However, terrorism is as much an outcome of economic deprivation as it is of ideological distortion. According to statistics cited in a recent study, economic and social reasons account for 89.58 per cent of madressah enrolment and the remaining 10.42 per cent for religious, educational and political considerations.

The new government has, therefore, to take into account that the war on terror cannot be won if a substantial segment of society lives below the poverty line. Social and economic inequalities may weigh more in a jihadi mindset than the desire to establish an Islamic emirate. The idea of living on the street, not being able to educate one's children or, even worse, not being able to put food on the table may be more threatening than any amount of negative indoctrination by clerics.

The time has come for the government to reclaim the public services provided by religious seminaries. Massive projects on a national level pertaining to low-income housing, educational and vocational training, healthcare and employment opportunities have to be implemented. It is only when these basic necessities are met that the ideological battle against extremist violence will yield results.

By Mushfiq Murshed - The writer is editor-in-chief of Criterion Quarterly (Dawn)
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