Madrassas education and militancy

Madrassas education, Islamic extremism and militancy
Islamabad, Oct 25: Madrassas or Islamic seminaries figure prominently in the discourse on Islamic extremism and militancy in Pakistan. This debate is highly polemical. The people associated with or sympathetic to madrassas describe them as neutral academic institutions devoted to teaching the Quran, the Sunnah and related religious matters. They project them as voluntary organisations engaged in national service, as these provide free food, shelter and education to students, invariably from the poor families, and argue that madrassas have nothing to do with extremism and militancy.

The other extreme perspective views the madrassa as the stronghold of religious extremism and militancy. Almost all of them have a religious-sectarian disposition and socialise children into a narrow religious worldview that inculcates intolerance and bigotry.

No doubt, most madrassas provide free education, food and shelter to a large number of students. These institutions cannot be viewed as neutral seats of learning. Some linkages can be identified between madrassa education and environment and militancy but other factors also contribute to religious extremism and militancy.

The term madrassa covers a variety of institutions, from small rudimentary centres for teaching the Quran and fundamentals of Islam to formal institutions that award religious certificates and degrees. Some such institutions have elaborate showpiece structures with formal hierarchies. In case of the rudimentary centres, students may be studying in regular schools but they go to these centre for learning the Quran and the basics of Islam. These may or may not be attached with local mosques, and play a limited role in shaping the orientations of their students.

However, the madrassas that serve as the only source of education and learning for young children are critical to shaping their orientations. Semi-literate mullahs with a narrow religious worldview teach the students in most madrassas. Many parents send their children to these madrassas because education is free and discipline is strict. Then, there are formal and elaborate institutions that have qualified teachers and offer various religious degrees.

A new breed of madrassas is emerging in urban areas, which combines formal school/college education with religious education. The students go for formal state-managed examinations for regular degrees but get additional Islamic education, which is taken care of by the institution itself. These charge tuition fees.

However, modern madrassas and university-like showpiece institutions are small in number. Most madrassas are giving narrow-based purely religious education that is devoid of modern text and knowledge. An important study by Dr Mumtaz Ahmad, published in April 2009, maintains that the curricula of the madrassas "have not undergone any significant changes in their core content since inception in the 19th century." He maintains that "some modern subjects such as English, history, Maths, etc., have been introduced in several madrassas, especially at the elementary level, and some large madrassas have started some specialised courses on Islamic economics and finance. However, in an overwhelming majority of cases the higher level madrassas remain committed to their traditional curriculum." The qualifications of the teachers who teach modern subjects and what texts are being used for these subjects is not clear..

It may be difficult to give their exact number because not all of them are registered with the government. The most rudimentary ones are not invariably taken into account by the authorities. In 2007, there were 14,072 registered madrassas. The actual number of all kinds of madrassas is likely to be around 20,000.

Five madrassa boards oversee their academics and examination, each representing a religious denomination. These madrassa boards have traditionally opposed government efforts to reform religious education, describing it as an unjustified intrusion in their affairs. The madrassas of all schools of Islamic thought joined together to resist the efforts of ZA Bhutto in 1976 to increase government control.

In August 2001, before the terrorist attacks in the United States, the Musharraf government issued an ordinance to regulate the religious schools, which was opposed by these boards. The boards later came together to set up a federation of their boards to oppose the government's policies.

Another ordinance, issued in 2002, was equally opposed by the madrassa establishment. Later, the government accommodated some of their objections by reducing the requirements for information on their working and sources of funding. This opened the way for a relatively smooth registration process. The madrassa reforms under the Musharraf government had limited impact because the madrassa boards were not fully cooperative. Further, the ruling PMLQ did not want to alienate the madrassa establishment by insisting on the reforms.

The madrassa boards want the government to recognise their degrees as equivalent to various degrees from the formal education system. However, they do not want the government to look into their academic affairs, including curricula, qualifications of teachers and sources of funding.

Madrassa education emphasises a literalist approach towards religious text. It is highly conservative, monolithic and sectarian in perspective, and questions the legitimacy of those who do not share their perspective on religion and society. Their worldview is characterised by hostility towards whosoever is described as an adversary. This could be non-Muslims and those Muslims who are viewed as misguided or non-genuine.

Invariably, the madrassas have sectarian education. Some madrassas that label themselves as universities may discuss the teachings and jurisprudence of all sects. However, this is not done to promote religious pluralism but to reject the teachings of other sects and show that their own school of Islamic thought is better.

The madrassa creates a mindset among young people that makes them vulnerable to the appeals of militants to join them in holy war. Some of the madrassas have connections with militant groups or they allow militant leaders to visit and approach students for recruitment. Militants also recruit young people through mosque prayer leaders who may be linked with militant and sectarian groups. Even those who do not join militant groups support their ideology and actions from the sidelines.

Madrassas proliferated in the 1980s under the patronage of General Zia-ul Haq's military government. A large number of these institutions were set up in the NWFP, near Afghan refugee camps. These prepared young people for fighting in Afghanistan. Similar trends of proliferation of madrassas were noticeable in Punjab and Sindh, especially in Karachi in the 1980s and the early 1990s. In Punjab, two militant groups fighting in Kashmir sponsored madrassas with the funding they partly received from Pakistani intelligence agencies.

During the Taliban years, a good number of Deobandi and Ahle-Hadees madrassas in the NWFP, Punjab and Karachi used to send their students to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. On their return, they could be recruited for Pakistan-based militant groups.

It is important to monitor the political disposition of the faculty and administration of madrassas, their connections with local militant groups and, through them, with the Taliban. It is also important to see who stay as 'guests' at the madrassas for a couple of days; and also, what are the sources of funding for madrassas.

The long-term solution to extremism and militancy cannot be articulated without regulating the madrassas, especially those that have the reputation for supporting militant groups or openly preach religious and cultural intolerance. A check on highly politicised madrassas will limit the capacity of these madrassas to socialise young people into religious orthodoxy and militancy and thus make them vulnerable to the appeals of militant groups. -Dr. Hasan-Askari Rizvi

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Hindus prefer madrassas to govt schools in UP
New Delhi: A study has found that Hindus would prefer madrassas to local government primary schools in Indian province of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

The study also found a madrassa in the UP has a large number of Hindu children among its students, a study has found. Muslim students at Madrassa Islamia Arabia Alimul Uloom in Devgaon area of UP's Barabanki are taught Urdu and Arabic, while Hindu children are taught Sanskrit, according to the study conducted by the Lucknow-based Better Education Through Innovation (BETI), in collaboration with UNICEF.

The study was done in five madrassas of Deva block in Barabanki district, which is just half an hour drive from the state capital Lucknow. The five madrassas are run with the total support of the community and receive no financial aid from the government or any other agency. The expenses of the madrassas, including day-to-day management, are raised through donations by the community and fees charged from students. Out of the five, three madrassas are already teaching subjects other than religious education alone.

"These madrassas provides a wholesome environment for children. This is vital for the right growth of mind and body. I find it the most interesting study and one that will help clear a lot of doubts," said Vinoba Gautam, the UNICEF education specialist, who was part of the team that conducted the study in the Uttar Pradesh district.

He has visited the madrassas several times and UNICEF has been regularly sending reading material, translated into both Hindi and Urdu, for the students. Daily times

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