Religious schools: boon or bane?

Karachi, March 31, 2008: Mehboob Ilahi, 15, cannot wait for the next two weeks to get over to leave Pakistan and the Jamia Binoria for good.

Ilahi was brought in by his father, a Pakistan-born US citizen, a little over three years ago at the age of 11 to get enrolled in a madressah for religious education and has not gone back to the US since then.

When Ilahi does return, it will be as a Hafiz, having memorised the Quran in Arabic, no mean feat, but with almost no understanding of what he has memorised. But this is just the beginning for most students (aged between 6 and 15) entering madressah education. "This is just the beginning," says Maulana Abdul Majeed, who is in-charge of the foreign students, "after this there are as many as 20 subjects that they must master to become a religious scholar."

"When I first came I cried a lot," Ilahi admits in his heavily-accented American English. "It was difficult to get used to the pattern of living and the dust bothered me a lot.''

"I hate everything about Pakistan," he says without any hesitation or fear. But what he hates most is the "madressah food and being stuck here". The teenager is like any boarder who is missing home, likening the US to a "colourful world" and terming Pakistan "a black and white TV".

Illahi, with all his complaints, is among the 600 international students (both girls and boys) studying at the Jamia Binoria.

Hussain Abdul Momin, 28, from Niger, already a Hafiz, has been at the Jamia Binoria for eight years. He wants to become a religious teacher when he goes back after finishing the six-year scholar's course that he is doing. He came to Pakistan because "the madressah education here is renowned in the Islamic world for its excellence''.

The same reason is given by 32-year-old Asri Abdel Aziz, a Thai national, who has been there for just under a year. Both boys and girls, with their impeccable manners and soft demeanour, seem far from the popular notion of religious students as intolerant and bigoted.

"It's a misconception spread by the government itself," says Mufti Mohammad Naeem, the principal and founder of the Jamia Binoria, which began in 1978 and now has six branches across the metropolis. He dismisses the idea that madressahs had become breeding grounds for radicalism.

"Radicalism should not be seen in isolation. It is a reaction to various factors. The phenomenon of what you call globalisation is actually western imperialism, the consumerist and hedonistic culture that we have emulated from the west, the untold collateral damage caused by the US war on terror… and the state's role perceived as American lackey have compounded it," he says.

"It is the government's dangerous U-turn policy that is causing so much disenchantment and the crises we are in right now," he goes on, referring to the increase in suicide attacks and bomb blasts. "The same jihadis spawned by the government have gone against their creators," he said pointing to a spate of attacks over the past year on the police and security forces' personnel.

There are some 20,000 to 25,000 big and small madressahs, providing education, boarding and meals to 1.6 million children which accounts for about eight per cent of all Pakistani children of school-going age, says Mufti Naeem.

And most of these students are, unlike Ilahi and other foreigners, in the madressahs because they have nowhere else to turn to for an education.

Mufti Naeem was of the view that these religious schools also provided an escape from feudal oppression. He thinks social exclusion and economic deprivation are the reasons why many youngsters are drawn towards religious militancy.

"There are reasons why the poor send their children to madressahs... the state does not provide them educational support," says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst. At the same time, he says, madressahs have direct as well as indirect links with terrorism.

"The issue of terrorism is not with madressahs themselves but the ideology being taught by some segments of the Deobandi school of thought," says Zaid Hamid, head of an Islamabad-based think tank.

He, however, said that not all Deobandi madressahs subscribed to this ideology of violence.

"Our sect has been singled out, because our madressahs are in the majority," justifies Mufti Naeem, who does not deny that there may be some miscreants defaming this particular school of thought.

In the Pashtun belt bordering Afghanistan especially, say analysts, there is neither agriculture nor industry. Most male members have migrated to the cities and send home remittances. For these families madressahs provide a measure of social security. Children are assured of not just regular meals but a semblance of education and dignity.

Hundreds of madressahs were established in and around the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in the 1980s and these had direct links with the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan.

"A good number of Pakistani madressahs, even from the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, sent their students to help the Taliban in their war against the Afghanistan's Northern Alliance," claims Rizvi.

Enrolment in madressahs dropped in the aftermath of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the US, and many foreign students left, but the negative propaganda against Islam later helped "ignite among young Muslims, a thirst to know more about their religion with more and more getting enrolled now," says Mufti Abdullah Hazarvi, who has been associated with the Jamia for over 18 years.

Following the attack, much money and effort went into the madressah reform programmes but with limited success.

In 2005, under extreme pressure from the US, the government began a crackdown on the seminaries to combat home-grown extremism that bred fanaticism.

The military government of Pakistan took many measures, including a clampdown on banned militant Islamic organisations, conducting raids and the confiscation of "inflammatory" material. But the government seemed to stumble over the question of madressah reforms.

As first steps, the government wanted all faith schools to get registered, modernise their curriculum and reveal their financiers.

Till last year 14,656 of the 20,000 or so such schools registered voluntarily with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and all of them have, willy-nilly, modernised their syllabi, or at least they say so.

Mufti Hazarvi is not happy with such interference. "By demanding that we teach other subjects, they are diverting our students from religious studies," he says.

"Most madressah, back in 2005, were ready to register and many, like ours had already revised our curriculum. The issue came up when most madressahs, including us, resisted our accounts being audited," says Mufti Naeem.

He recalled last year's army operation against the Lal Masjid people in Islamabad. "Just when the Ulema had succeeded in negotiating and convincing the mosque administration to surrender, the government attacked them killing many innocent boys and girls in the process."

At that time, Jamia Binoria was among the many schools that had condemned the radical stance taken by Lal Masjid of enforcing the Sharia on their own. He suggests forming a committee of Ulema, "but only those who are apolitical."

"Eradicating extremism and terrorism is our common cause," he says.

He said that if the government was really willing to come up with a solution to this problem, it should support us.

"It's not too late even now. We need to start a dialogue, listen to their woes and address them. But it may mean curtailment of the American aid and I wonder if our politicians are willing to make the sacrifice." -Dawn/IPS News Service



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