Education itself has never been a priority, be it religious or otherwise. Many promises of mainstreaming Madrassas, modernizing them with state of the art facilities and modern education have remained unfulfilled over the years, writes Tabish Qayyum.

video went viral recently showing few young bearded boys of a madrassa taking turns on a swing at a park in the country’s capital. Few more videos and images were flashing on social media showing human side of many such students relaxing in Islamabad’s major public spots while a political sit-in was underway. Most of the attendees were madrassa students that were rallying on the call of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. People were surprised to see a different image of these students from the stereo-typed projection in the media and public imagination where madrassa students are presented as extremists, radicals and irrational beings that post a risk to national cohesion, regional peace and security. 

JUI-F, like many other political and religious organizations, caters to thousands of madrassas and millions of students in Pakistan. According to some statistics, there are almost 30,000 madrassas and 2.5 million students that benefit from their services. They serve as a low cost alternative to families who are unable to provide quality education to their children, have religious convictions or have no other option at their hands due to lack of government schooling structure in many improvised areas.

Deprivation

Throughout our turbulent political history, governments and regimes have deprived these students of any representation and agency into the national discourse, leaving them at the mercy of various political, religious organizations and sects who in return have benefited from the vacuum left by the state by not owning these institutions. In fact, education itself has never been a priority, be it religious or otherwise. Many promises of mainstreaming madrassas, modernizing them with state of the art facilities and modern education have remained unfulfilled. 

In 2001, under Gen (r) Musharraf’s regime, some Rs 5.7 billion were allocated for various projects to introduce modernity and run de-radicalization initiatives in madrassas. An ordinance was promulgated titled, “Pakistan Madrassa Education (Establishment and Affiliation of Modern DeeniMadaris) Board, Ordinance, 2001’with the aim to align the madrassa curriculum in accordance with public and private schools in Pakistan. Similarly, “Voluntary Registration and Regulation Ordinance, 2002’was promulgated to keep a government check on admissions of foreigners in to the madrassas in Pakistan. Unfortunately, these initiatives were rejected by the madrassas and ‘Ulema’ as attempts by the state to interfere in religious affairs on foreign directives having ulterior motives to serve global interests. 

Throughout our turbulent political history, governments and regimes have deprived these students of any representation and agency into the national discourse, leaving them at the mercy of various political, religious organizations and sects

These initiatives should not be seen in isolation; they were being presented at a time when region was entering in to a deadly conflict post 9/11 when the war on terror was perceived as war against Islam in the Muslim world. Religious community of Pakistan was deeply skeptic of Musharraf and his actions, largely siding with US in war against terror and these reforms were a form of coercion by the state. 

Eighteen years later, with the war nearing its end and the US and Taliban negotiating to find a political solution to the conflict, the question of ‘madrassa reforms’ has risen again. Due to a lack of sustainable policy or a long-term engagement with the madrassas plus a trust deficit, we are back to square one. Threat of Pakistan being black-listed at the FATF is looming around as Pakistan is forced to take action in its own interest against terror financing and money laundering. 

It would be impossible to convince the world of our actions with ungoverned and unregulated spaces in the country that remain at risk of exploitation. But again, the primary question remains, are we doing this to project our soft image or avert the financial and economic pressures? Or is it a genuine concern to eradicate extremism, mainstream seminaries and turn this massive human resource in to robust machinery as a productive component of society and national progress? The logical conclusion is to announce an educational emergency to save the future of the country.

Changing Times

Pakistan currently has the largest population of young people ever recorded in its history, according to a comprehensive National Human Development Report (NHDR) report launched by UNDP. We need to transform education system through a complete overhaul including madrassas and universities. In the larger context, we need to see beyond the madrassa issue as well. How productive are our university graduates? Why are our doctors and engineer out on the streets protesting low income and facilities? Why are millions of graduates jobless?

The world around us is changing, we need to meet new challenges and empower the massive youth bulge through innovative ideas. Madrassa students are relatively more motivated, simple-living, hardworking and passionate when it comes to life and challenges. They are no less intelligent either. The utmost need at this juncture is vision and leadership more than politics and bureaucratic puzzling. In his meeting with scholars and students, Prime Minister Imran Khan had said, “Islam clears that without education, society could not progress, all the top scientists for 700 years were Muslims”. The question arises, do we have a holistic national vision to reclaim our lost history?

 

The prime minister, army chief and other government officials have had a number of extensive meetings over the past year with scholars, administrators and religious heads of five madrassa boards related to various sects and other political, religious leaders to devise mechanisms, build trust and bring madrassas in to the mainstream. There have been various proposals such as improving the syllabus and run these institutes under the purview of ministry of education. Once the legislation is presented in Parliament, it will be followed by finalization of syllabus, appointment of teachers and allocation of finances. Madaris Boards or ‘Wifaqs’ should be made more effective providing equivalence of degrees through HEC. Consortiums of madrassas with mainstream universities can also be helpful in developing exchange programs, certified courses and skill developing initiatives to empower the students. 

Imran Khan supports mainstreaming madrasaas and offering equal growth opportunities to their students through integration into public and private sectors. He believes our existing social fabric does not accept wholeheartedly these students who generally come from humble backgrounds. Thus, leaving them on their own has security implications for the state.

 In the larger context, we need to see beyond the madrassa issue as well. How productive are our university graduates? Why are our doctors and engineer out on the streets protesting low income and facilities? Why are millions of graduates jobless?

Nonetheless, both the government and the military junta are mindful of how important mainstreaming madrasaas is and have taken due measures in this regard. The national action plan designed by civil and military leaderships indicates how committed Pakistan is in uprooting fundamentalism. As far as extremism is concerned, we need to ensure that madrassas are not weaponized and their students not used as cannon fodder for short-term security interests by the state or non-state actors. We have had enough conflicts in the region in the last three decades that has held us back from progress and stability. Not only have we incurred material loss, our image has been tarnished through sophisticated agenda of hostile entities leading to question on our integrity despite our sacrifices. Our faith is being tarnished by actions of few that played into the hands of our enemies. Therefore, we need to vet not just the curriculum, but the ones who we provide stage and podium to address our youth as teachers. 

The menace of ‘Takfeer’, sectarianism and violence is more a subject of interpretation than the text. Intention of state to engage with the religious community is utmost important. If the state and its organs continue to interact and engage with the scholars on regular basis, jointly carry out workshops and study tours for each other than there can be no misunderstanding and doubt among the state and the agency of madrassa students and scholars who would put their complete trust and abilities for the strengthening of society and state.Beyond what the religious community or the government pulls off in the ‘Madrassa Reform’ act. 

Change Ready?

A sincere question to our scholars is whether they are ready to embrace the change that is knocking at our doors? Are we not seeing the world of information changing around us? The same scholars who are reluctant to adapt modernity are themselves using innovative software and search engines to find hadith and book references in nano-seconds, which otherwise would have taken a lot of time to find on dusty racks in libraries. 

Smart phone apps such as Islam 360, E-Books, Supplications and many other technological tools are at the disposal of millions of people around the world. Shouldn’t these madrassa students be at the forefront of designing these apps and software? Recently Imran Khan announced an Islamic channel with cooperation of friendly Muslim nations Malaysia & Turkey to counter Islamophobia in the west. Shouldn’t our madrassa students be at the forefront in creating content that clarifies the image of Islam? Who could do better than them if provided with the right tools and knowledge? There was a time when students of various faiths and ethnicities would come from all corners of the world to study from magnanimous Muslim scholars such as Ibn-e-Sina. Madrassas were the symbol of innovation and progress for the wellbeing of humanity teaching mathematics, astronomy, medicine along with religion, theology and languages centuries ago. We have a rich history of scholars and students who in their pursuit of knowledge, changed the world around them through the power of faith and mind, unlocking greatest mysteries of the universe. Not only that, they also uplifted the societies on the values of peace, justice and tranquility attracting millions around the world into the fold of Islam.

It is a prime opportunity not only for the government as the representative of the people of Pakistan, the military as the guarantor of national security and regional peace along with the Ulema as the representative of Islam around the world to come together for initiatives that creates a win-win situation for everyone. With changing environment of information and technology mediums of communication are completely transformed. Madrassa students equipped with communication skills, media sciences and Information technology skills can turn around the face of Pakistan and Islam around the world. We can once again get take lessons from our ancestors and carry on the legacy that we lost on the way – We need a vision with the right intentions. 

Tabish Qayyum is a researcher and analyst on international relations, counter violent extremism, social media, big data and politics. He is an NDU alumni and recently graduated from MPhil Political Science program at UMT.

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