Pakistan: Karachi’s Madrasas and Violent Extremism
Pakistan: Karachi’s Madrasas and Violent Extremism
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 130 / Asia 3 minutes

Pakistan: Karachi’s Madrasas and Violent Extremism

More than five years after President Pervez Musharraf declared his intention to crack down on violent sectarian and jihadi groups and to regulate the network of madrasas (religious schools) on which they depend, his government’s reform program is in shambles.

Executive Summary

More than five years after President Pervez Musharraf declared his intention to crack down on violent sectarian and jihadi groups and to regulate the network of madrasas (religious schools) on which they depend, his government’s reform program is in shambles. Banned sectarian and jihadi groups, supported by networks of mosques and madrasas, continue to operate openly in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, and elsewhere. The international community needs to press President Musharraf to fulfil his commitments, in particular to enforce genuine controls on the madrasas and allow free and fair national elections in 2007. It should also shift the focus of its donor aid from helping the government’s ineffectual efforts to reform the religious schools to improving the very weak public school sector.

Karachi’s madrasas, which have trained and dispatched jihadi fighters to Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir, offer a valuable case study of government failures and consequences for internal stability and regional and international security. In 2006, the city was rocked by high-profile acts of political violence. In three separate attacks, suicide bombers killed a U.S. diplomat, assassinated the head of the most prominent Shia political group and wiped out the entire leadership of a Sunni militant group locked in a struggle for control over mosques with its Sunni rivals.

Not all madrasas in the city are active centres of jihadi militancy but even those without direct links to violence promote an ideology that provides religious justification for such attacks. Exploiting Karachi’s rapid, unplanned and unregulated urbanisation and its masses of young, disaffected and impoverished citizens, the madrasa sector has grown at an explosive rate over the past two decades. Given the government’s half-hearted reform efforts, these unregulated madrasas contribute to Karachi’s climate of lawlessness in numerous ways – from illegal land encroachment and criminality to violent clashes between rival militant groups and use of the pulpit to spread calls for sectarian and jihadi violence.

The Pakistan government has yet to take any of the overdue and necessary steps to control religious extremism in Karachi and the rest of the country. Musharraf’s periodic declarations of tough action, given in response to international events and pressure, are invariably followed by retreat. Primarily responsible for the half-hearted efforts is his dependence on the religious right, particularly his coalition partner in the Balochistan government, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), which runs the largest network of Deobandi madrasas. He needs these allies to counter his civilian opposition, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which dominated politics during the democratic interlude of the 1990s.

Plans are announced with much fanfare and then abandoned. As a result, madrasas remain either unregistered or registered under laws that have no effective implementation. The sectarian, jihadi content of the madrasa curriculum is untouched, and there is no meaningful control over money flows into and through madrasas and other religious institutions. The absence of a single agency, under parliamentary control and with the requisite authority to regulate the madrasa sector, has empowered opponents of reform. Powers are scattered among multiple ministries and levels of government. Attempts to “mainstream” madrasa curricula through introduction of a range of non-religious classes have also proved futile, with most madrasas refusing to cooperate with very modest government reforms. In any case, the introduction of secular courses would only be of slight value unless there were also deep changes in the religious curriculum to end the promotion of violent sectarianism and jihad.

Government efforts, and donors’ money, should instead go towards increased support and reform of the public school system, including removal of the sectarian, pro-jihad, and anti-minority portions of its curriculum. Donors must monitor the reform of that public school curriculum closely and make sure that it is implemented with the requisite long-term commitment.

Exploiting the military government’s weakness, the religious parties and madrasa unions have countered all attempts to regulate the madrasa sector. By backtracking, the government has further emboldened sectarian and extremist forces, resulting in a significant contribution to the violence that plagues Karachi and indeed the rest of the country. The prospects for breaking the links between the madrasa sector and violent extremism would increase if the national elections this year are democratic, free and fair. If they are, it is likely that the religious parties will be marginalised and the national-level moderate parties – with much greater political will to enact meaningful reforms – returned to power.

Islamabad/Brussels, 29 March 2007

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