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Pak-Madressah reform difficulty

By Muhammad Amir Rana
April 27 2014




MADRESSAH administration elites are sensitive to the idea of reform in their education system. No government here has intervened in practical terms in the affairs of madressahs — predominantly controlled and administered by the clergy. Still these elites eye any madressah-related statement by the government with suspicion.

The government itself is unclear about what to do about this sector of education, which evidence links to many security-related problems. In its recently announced internal security policy, the government developed a case about madressahs purely from a security perspective. The policy draft recommended the mainstreaming of this sector, leading to resentment among the madressah elites that saw it as the government’s attempt to ‘occupy’ or ‘nationalise’ the madressah sector.

Interestingly, while security- and terrorism-related issues are usually linked to madressahs of particular Islamic sects, whenever the government indicates it wants to reform madressahs, all educational boards administrating madressahs of different sects or streams, and religious organisations, set aside their differences to jointly resist such attempts.

The reason is clear. The madressah elites think whenever the government will intervene to reform madressahs the process will entail all madressah streams. The non-flexible attitude of the elites has a reason. They seek political, moral and economic support through this system to become stakeholders in the country’s power structure.

It has always been difficult for the government to find the starting point of intervention. The problem lies in its perception, priorities and ambiguities vis-à-vis policy formation. The government has to understand that reducing security threats and introducing educational reforms are two different tasks. The interior ministry, law-enforcement agencies and the National Counter Terrorism Authority can build an effective response to security issues related to the madressah sector but cannot reform the educational system.

The perception that security threats can be addressed while introducing madressah reforms is flawed. Especially when the government is not even clear as to what kind of educational reforms are needed. Mere introduction of formal education or a few subjects like English and computer science will not help remove security threats emanating from madressahs.

To address security issues linked to madressahs, the government and the relevant departments must adopt a non-discriminatory, zero-tolerance policy. If any madressah or school is involved in hate speech, indoctrination of violent ideologies, or providing hideouts to suspected terrorists and providing them with logistics, the law-enforcers should take action.

In many cases, madressah teachers and students have been involved in suspicious activities but the madressah administration had nothing to do with these. In these cases, the government has to take the madressah elites into confidence because the security threats emanating from madressahs cannot be mitigated without their cooperation

No doubt the madressah elites react and deny that their education institutes or students are involved in terrorism. In contrast, when law-enforcement agencies raid a college or university to apprehend a terrorism suspect, the administration does not create hurdles. The police have recently conducted such operations in some universities in Punjab and Karachi with the help of the university administration.

It would be relatively easier for the government to convince those at the helm at madressah education boards to extend their cooperation on security-related issues than to try to address the problem itself by reforming the whole sector. At the same time, the need for reforms remains. On the educational front, many madressahs realise the need to revise their curriculum, pedagogy and administrative systems. Many madressahs in major urban centres have already introduced many changes in their system to make it compatible not only with mainstream public but also private educational institutes.

A few religious parties and big madressahs have established what they call ‘modern Islamic schools’. These trends are considered by some as an attempt by religious elites to encroach on the mainstream education system. It is not certain if the government conceives of mainstreaming madressahs in a similar light.

Internal reform attempts in madressahs are not smooth and uniform, as many of these reforms are linked to the principal. Madressahs are like private enterprises and their principals have more freedom and authority. Even their respective educational boards cannot intervene. The educational boards are responsible only for holding examinations for affiliated madressahs.

If the government thinks it can encourage the madressah sector to bring about similar reforms, it has to take up a national level initiative. Obviously, this is not the interior ministry’s job. The religious affairs ministry is more interested in Haj-related affairs and it is not clear if it has the mandate for such engagement. After the 18th Amendment, education has become a provincial subject. But most provinces have not come up with legislation; those which have, have ignored madressahs.

As far as extremism is concerned, madressah elites say that the problem is not confined to their educational institutes. This is partially true as the thinking patterns of Pakistani youths irrespective of whether they’ve studied at madressahs or mainstream public and private institutions, have common tendencies. The views of those educated at madressahs and other educational institutes are almost the same. What makes madressah students more vulnerable to violent extremism are their sectarian views. The latter empathise not only with sectarian but also other terrorist groups working for multiple agendas.

It is a difficult task to address this critical issue, especially when the government has relatively less space to meddle as its options are almost nil.

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan 

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