he power of madrassas in Pakistan can be judged from the fact that almost all of the leadership of the Taliban and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), including Mullah Omar and Hakeemullah Mehsud, were educated in Pakistani madrassas – most of them linked to Jamia Darul-e-Uloom in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Politico-religious parties use the madrassas to show their street power in urban centres, while the country’s security establishment uses madrassas to provide man-power or fodder to its manufactured insurgencies ranging from Kashmir to Kandahar. The notion that the ‘madrassa movement’ coincided with the resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is supported by the 1998 population census. The increase in the stock of religiously educated individuals starts with the cohort that came of age in 1979, and the largest increase for the cohort ‘co-terminus’ was triggered with the rise of the Taliban. The fact that the largest enrollment percentage in Pakistan was in the Pashtun belt along the border with Afghanistan suggests that events in neighbouring Afghanistan influenced enrolment in madrassas as well.
A recent survey reveals that the number of madrassas across Pakistan stands at 28,982. This number stood at 2,861 in 1988 and 246 in 1947. However, the Interior Ministry estimates the number of madrassas in Pakistan to be 20,000 with over three million students. Of these, 11,000 madrassas belong to the Deobandi sect and have been declared “sensitive”. It should be noted that the role played by madrassas in raising jihadis very often tends to conceal a very important social security and welfare role that these institutions play in the country. While the poor find it difficult to pay for a quality education for their children, madrassas provide an alternative where children not only learn but are also housed, clothed and fed. However, the radical-religious argument suggests that children are more likely to be sent to madrassas when a family favours a radical brand of Islam. If true, then what are we to make of the fact that more than 75 percent of all households with a child enrolled in a madrassa also send a child to a public or private school? Many of the state schools in Pakistan, especially in Punjab, where religious extremism is at its peak, are ‘ghost schools’. It was reported, the Pakistan Army dug out 4,000 ‘ghost schools’ and 20,453 fake teachers in Punjab during late 1990s who were milking a sum of Rs 1.4 billion each year. Interestingly, Punjab has slowly emerged as the nerve centre of jihad and nearly 50 percent of the jihadis fighting in various proxies belong to this one province alone. A survey of 10 major jihadi groups has revealed that over 15,000 people from Punjab died in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Apparently, out of the 15,000 killed, only 40 percent had actually studied in madrassas.
However, the age-old analysis that madrassas alone breed hate and irrationality, which then results in international jihad, is itself a distorted worldview. The educational material in most secular and so-called ‘English-medium’ schools is, at times, equally distorted. Parts of their textbooks tell lies, craft hate, and incite readers to a new world order called ‘pan-Islamism’, hence ideologically confusing the students who are already suffering from a serious identity crisis. Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, an upper middle-class English speaker who never even attended a madrassa was himself a product of one of these English-medium schools in the country. A little research provided statistical proof to back my point. I discovered that out of 800 ‘martyrs’ of Harkatul Mujahideen, only 188 went to madrassas – the rest went to state schools or were dropouts. This obviously means that a majority of the jihadis from Punjab, and more specifically the Seraiki belt, are coming from the state school system and not just from madrassas.
If madrassas provide man-power to the Islamists, English-medium schools provide the Sheikh Omar breed, third-generation terrorists.
‘Sectarian jihadis’, who have transformed into what we call the ‘Punjabi Taliban’, through a decade of evolution are mostly concentrated in the economically backward and feudally dominated agrarian areas of Punjab. While there are 599 madrassas in the four divisions of north and central Punjab, there are 1,768 in the province’s northwest and south. Fighting as ‘our’ state proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir over the years, the Punjabi Taliban have changed sides and now maintain close ties with the TTP and regularly travel to the tribal belt for training and other ‘business activities’. Of course, the traffic is two-way, since the Punjabi Taliban provide safe havens in south Punjab to the top TTP and al Qaeda militants. The situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab is out of control due to the constant indoctrination and absence of pressure groups and citizen watchdogs. This lack of control on the situation is creating ‘Kasabs’ and ‘Qadris’, a whole new breed of militants who are on programmed and engaged on auto-pilot mode.
Now, especially after 9/11, the focus on madrassas has become all the more sharper. This obviously has something to do with their role in promoting jihad across the globe and this has consequently led to a lot of pressure on the Pakistani state to monitor and regulate the functioning of these institutions. Somewhat reluctantly, the Musharraf regime agreed to modernise the curriculum of madrassas and made it mandatory that they be registered – just like government schools and colleges. Large sums of foreign aid were received to achieve these goals, but the sorry fact is that not much was done. Of course, there was a lot of hype but it all turned out to be the typical bluff and bluster. In fact, the initial funding of $ 50 million provided by the US to the Ministry of Religious Affairs was used to modernise its offices and buy new SUVs for the
The regime wanted the madrassas to register with the government and to submit their accounts so that they may be scrutinised, but the mullahs running them simply took to the streets and in turn used their students to put pressure on the government. When the policy of using a stick failed, the Musharraf regime then tried to use a carrot in the form of aid to all those madrassas that would agree to register. The US played a key role in this by funding a plan worth millions of dollars.
The Musharraf regime is now history and so is the plan, it seems, to reform the madrassas. The reforms process initiated by the previous government was essentially on paper alone and the present government has not done anything to further this cause. Seminaries continue to ‘teach’ hatred and intolerance and their ‘graduates’ are recruited by the Afghan Taliban, TTP and al Qaeda without any check or monitoring. Are we going to keep burying our heads in the sand and ignore these facts much to our own peril? Clearly, the government needs to wake up and do something about this before it is too late.
Ali Chishti is a writer based in Karachi. He can
be reached at