Juggling Figures, Ignoring Facts
Juggling Figures, Ignoring Facts
Keeping Turmoil at Bay in Pakistan’s Polarised Polity
Keeping Turmoil at Bay in Pakistan’s Polarised Polity
Commentary / Asia

Juggling Figures, Ignoring Facts

There is no end to what can be achieved through the juggling of numbers, as a recent World Bank-funded paper on madrasas in Pakistan demonstrates only too well.

If the findings of this paper, entitled “Religious School Enrolment in Pakistan: a Look at the Data”, are to be taken at face value, then Pakistan and the international community, have little cause to worry about an educational sector that glorifies jihad and indoctrinates Pakistani children in religious intolerance and extremism.

Questioning the validity of madrasa enrolment statistics provided by the International Crisis Group and other expert analysts, Tahir Andrabi et al. argue that madrasas account for less than one per cent of all school enrolment in Pakistan, and that there is no evidence of a dramatic increase in enrolment in recent years.

This is directly at odds with the official source, the Pakistan Ministry of Education’s 2003 directory of madrasas, which indicates that the number of madrasa has increased from 6,996 in 2001 to 10,430. Madrasa unions themselves put the figure at 13,000 with the total number of students enrolled at 1.5-1.7 million, but of course they may have reasons for inflating their numbers. Taking the Ministry of Education figure of an additional 3,434 madrasa since 2001, it is highly implausible that enrolment in madrasas has also not grown.

The authors insist there are at most 475,000 children in Pakistani madrasa, yet Ejazul Haq, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Religious Affairs, says that the country’s madrasas impart religious education to 1,000,000 children.

The trouble is that the authors base their analysis on three questionable sources: the highly controversial 1998 census; household surveys that were neither designed nor conducted to elicit data on madrasa enrolment; and a limited, village-based, household educational census, conducted by the researchers themselves in only three of 102 districts.

The 1998 census is not only out-of-date, as the authors themselves admit, but their 2003 educational census is also of little value because it is based on a representative sample of villages, suggesting that the madrasa is mainly a rural phenomenon. In fact, urban cities and towns tend to have the largest clusters of madrasas; most villages seldom have more than one. The authors might have learnt more about the madrasa phenomenon had they conducted their field research in urban centres, and on institutions such as the Binori Town madrasa and its affiliates in Karachi.

Interestingly, the authors also downplay the linkage between poverty and madrasa education. Yet a 2002 survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (Deeni Madaris: Problems and Prospects, Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad, 2002), and a 2002-2003 survey conducted by Tariq Rehman (reproduced in IPRI Journal, Winter 2004) found that a majority of madrasa students came from economically deprived backgrounds.

The authors’ insist that the Pakistani madrasa sector is a by-product of geographical proximity to Afghanistan and the geopolitics of Pakistan’s western neighbour, but intriguingly overlook its domestic and international implications. Since General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq ruled Pakistan (1977-88), the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and other Deobandi parties have, with state patronage, used their madrasas to recruit party members as well as volunteers for domestic and regional jihads.

The rise of jihadi and sectarian violence in Pakistan is closely linked to the madrasa boom. And the close ties between local and transnational extremists will continue to pose a threat to the Pakistani state, and to regional and international security, till such time that the country’s decision-makers acknowledge they have a problem that has to be dealt with, and urgently. Juggling figures is unlikely to help.

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