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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.

One of 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.

Today, they 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 training.

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 nation-building".

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".

Although the 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 nation-state.

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 reform process.

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.

These 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 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 In the summer of 2007 the authors co-led a project on Madrassa Education Reform in Pakistan - Daily Times

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