Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and the Military
Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and the Military
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 36 / Asia

Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and the Military

In its new role as key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Pakistan's military government has toned down many policies that previously fostered militancy and religious extremism within the country and internationally.

Executive Summary

In its new role as key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Pakistan's military government has toned down many policies that previously fostered militancy and religious extremism within the country and internationally. Action against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and home-grown sectarian terrorists are examples. But the military's confrontation with its former religious allies is likely, at best, a short-term response compelled by circumstances and foreign pressure.

It is doubtful whether the military government has the intent or the will to set Pakistani society on a sustainable course that would lead to political pluralism and religious tolerance. On a key test – reform of madrasas, Pakistani religious schools that breed extremism of many hues – the military government thus far has acted weakly.

Madrasas provide free religious education, boarding and lodging and are essentially schools for the poor. Over one and a half million children attend madrasas.[fn]This sentence, inserted on 15 July 2005, replaces the original line "About a third of all children in Pakistan in education attend madrasas", which was based on a mistaken calculation, as identified in Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das, Asim Ijaz Khwaja, Tristan Zajonc, "Religious School Enrollment in Pakistan: A Look at the Data", Working Paper Series 3521, World Bank, 1 February 2005. Slight consequential editorial amendments, reflecting this change, are made elsewhere in the text; see also footnotes 6 and 6a below.Hide Footnote These seminaries run on public philanthropy and produce indoctrinated clergymen of various Muslim sects. Some sections of the more orthodox Muslim sects have been radicalised by state sponsored exposure to jihad, first in Afghanistan, then in Kashmir. However, the madrasa problem goes beyond militancy. Students at more than 10,000 seminaries are being trained in theory, for service in the religious sector. But their constrained worldview, lack of modern civic education and poverty make them a destabilising factor in Pakistani society. For all these reasons, they are also susceptible to romantic notions of sectarian and international jihads, which promise instant salvation.

The Musharraf government has pledged, as many previous Pakistani governments have done, to change the status of madrasas and integrate them into the formal education sector. It has also pledged to reform the madrasa system as part of its anti-terrorism actions in fulfilment of UN Security Council Resolution 1373. However, these pledges have not been backed by decisive action or a credible plan to remake the system within a reasonable timeframe.

A madrasa reform law is in the works that would regulate the schools. It would provide for changes in the curriculum, registration and monitoring of finances but even the name of the draft – the Deeni Madaris (Voluntary Registration and Regulation) Ordinance 2002 – gives some sense of the lack of commitment to reform.

The bill does not envisage real intervention in the madrasa system because the clergy is opposed. Madrasas will instead be asked to submit to regulation voluntarily, and the law proposes no mechanism of enforcement or punishments for violations. Madrasas would simply be asked to comply with the new curriculum.

Alongside this very gentle prodding, the government is offering madrasas some carrots for good behaviour: free Islamic and modern textbooks and other rewards, including salaries for teachers. Most madrasas have shrugged off both aspects of the plan and have said they will resist any attempts to secularise education. The religious organisations already banned by the government continue to run schools and to produce militant literature.

Both the clergy and independent observers see the government's plans as measures aimed at assuaging international opinion. In fact, the government's apparent policy shift represents not real change but rather continuity of the military's alliance with the United States and its patron-client relationship with the Pakistani clergy.

U.S. support gives international legitimacy to the military's role in Pakistani politics. A madrasa sector the autonomy of which remains untouched and that is not forced to reform is unlikely to confront the military. On the contrary, the clergy remains a vocal supporter of a politically dominant military and its India policy. This explains why the government's madrasa reforms are cosmetic and lack substance, legal muscle or an intent to institutionalise long-term change.

Madrasas have a long history in Pakistan and in Muslim societies generally. They serve socially important purposes, and it is reasonable for a government to seek to modernise and adapt rather than eliminate them. International assistance to Pakistani education, especially from Western donors, however, should focus heavily on rebuilding a secular system that has been allowed to decay for three decades. Any international assistance for the government's madrasa reform project should be closely tied to proof that it represents a genuine commitment to promote moderate, modern education.

Musharraf's clampdown on foreigners linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda shows that international pressure can work. It is what will determine if and when the government will enact tangible madrasa reform. International acceptance of the military's domestic manoeuvres in exchange for support in the war on terrorism risks more extremism in the not distant future that will be hard to contain. Wavering by important international actors, especially the U.S., will not only increase extremist threats to Pakistan but eventually also undermine global security and stability.

Islamabad/Brussels 29 July 2002

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