Imran Khan and his close political associates are well known for their support and admiration for the Islamist extremist groups in Pakistan. It was no surprise that the Federal Information Minister Mr. Fawad Chaudhry simply aped the radical views of his boss in a speech delivered at a conference in Islamabad, when he absolved the Deeni Madaris from any role in the rapid spread of extremism in Pakistan. According to him, public schools and colleges are the root cause of religious extremism. His claim that teachers were hired in schools and colleges during the 1980s and ‘90s to teach extremism is not wrong. This was the period when the Jamaat-i-Islami was a coalition partner of the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq and their goal was to encroach on educational institutions to sow the seeds of religious extremism and prepare cannon fodder for the ongoing Jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Zia and his “Rufaqa” – (companions) as he was so fond of calling his cronies – sowed the seeds of religious extremism, intolerance and bigotry in this country. The Zia era was the first attempt in the history of the country to impose strict religious injunctions and turn Pakistan into a theocracy by the imposition of radical religious rules.
With the state support of religious parties and the start of the Afghan war, Pakistan witnessed a mushroom growth in the spread of Deeni Madaris and today we have over forty thousand religious seminaries in the country. Rulers of today simply cannot fool the people by denying the role of the Deeni Madaris in the spread of extremism and terrorism. Pakistan has yet to become aware of the cultural, political, social and economic impact and consequences of this religious education being fanned by the sea of madrasahs in the country. Successive governments after Zia have done nothing to control this festering sore of extremism on the grounds of fear of a backlash from the powerful religious lobby. Majority of the top madrasahs and their supporters have taken full advantage of the weak policies of the government and managed to increase their street power and support in the people. The biggest example is the present government’s total surrender before the TLP and their offer of complete amnesty to the TTP.
A research analyst at the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) has recently warned that religious schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan have turned into breeding grounds for terrorists. In her virtual speech at the 48th UN Human Rights Session, Anne Heckendorff was quoted as saying “It is well known that the menace of terrorism in South Asia has largely grown out of religious schools called madrasahs,” and she went on to say: “These schools that often times instill a distorted, ultra conservative interpretation of Islam still flourish uninhibitedly in Pakistan and Afghanistan” It is a well-known fact that the Taliban top leadership and the dreaded Haqqani network are the product of Madrasahs in Pakistan. The Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammed continue to flourish and spread their extremist ideas in the country without any checks on their activities.
Internationally reputed political analysts and security experts have repeatedly expressed fears that Pakistan’s tribal districts and KP have become strongholds of Islamic fundamentalism and religious politics in fact the campaign for the 2018 elections took place in masajids and madaris. All the thousands of Madrasahs in Pakistan are usually established by a Mullah of some importance and repute who also manages the resources that come from voluntary contributions in the country and from abroad. These madrasahs owe their religious and ideological allegience to various Islamic sects. Within Sunni Islam, they adhere to different doctrines such as Deobandi, Ahle Hadith and Barelvi. Individual madrasahs are also aligned with different federations: the most prominent of them are Wafaq-ul-Madaris Al- Arabia, Tanzeem-ul-Madaris Ahle Sunnat, Wafaq-ul Madaras Shia and the Rabiat-ul madaris Al Islamia.
Pakistan witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of Madrasahs during the 1980s and they provided foot soldiers first for the Afghan mujahedeen and then for the Taliban to resist the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. During this time they received massive aid help and support from the USA, Pakistan, European Union and Saudi Arabia. After 9/11 the role of Pakistani madrasahs came under international scrutiny and criticism for their role in promoting extremism and for enrolling students from Muslim countries and training them for Jihad. The suicide bombers of the London tube stations in July 2005 were reported to have attended Pakistani Deeni Madaris.
The role of the madrassas was highlighted again in July 2007, after the female students of Jamia Hafsa and male students of Jamia Faridia madrassas – both controlled by Islamabad’s Red Mosque clerics Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi – occupied a government building for several months in Islamabad, directly challenging the authority of the Pakistani government. The stand-off led to a military operation in which Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi and dozens of madrassa students were killed. However, this did not diminish the role of the madrassas. Madrassas have continued to function autonomously across Pakistan, unregulated by the government despite Musharraf’s promises to reform them.
The need of the hour is that the state and civil society has to move out of the pipe dream of Riasat-i-Madina and the religious-militant mindset created by the Zia era – and abandon this illogical belief that the Deeni Madaris are not a source of extremism and terror. The state institutions should stop promoting the ridiculously simple idea that the Madaris cater to the educational needs of the poor masses. The political support and backing of the deeni madaris by the PTI government is nothing but a disastrous course to follow. State institutions and PTI ministers have adopted the Madrasah Elite’s narrative that the source of the problem lies with the public education system and not the deeni madaris.
This amounts to sticking our heads in sand like the proverbial ostrich.