The untamed madrasas
The untamed madrasas
Op-Ed / Asia 2 minutes

The untamed madrasas

Addressing a joint session of the Pakistan Parliament this month, President Pervez Musharraf appealed to the Pakistani people to “wage a jihad against extremism" and said his government “would ensure that those individuals or groups involved in sectarianism and terrorism are completely eradicated from Pakistan."

A few days earlier, Musharraf had promised Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India that he would tackle extremism and indicated that he would negotiate flexibly on Kashmir. These are encouraging promises, but a look at the record of the past two years gives reason to wonder whether Musharraf will keep them.

In January 2002, Musharraf gave a televised speech promising to combat extremism. One aim was to bring all of Pakistan's madrasas, or Islamic schools, into the mainstream. Many now cultivate radical thinking and act as recruiting and indoctrination centers for jihadi terrorists.

Declaring that no institutions in Pakistan would be above the law, Musharraf's government promised that it would register all madrasas to obtain a clear idea of which groups were running which schools, insist that all madrasas adopt a government curriculum by the end of 2002, and stop madrasas and mosques from being used as centers for the spread of politically and religiously inflammatory statements and publications.

Two years later, no presidential ordinance to regulate madrasas has been promulgated, and the government openly assures the clergy that it will not interfere in madrasas' internal affairs. Most madrasas in Pakistan remain unregistered.

The Pakistan Madrasa Education Board, established in August 2001 to oversee the schools, has so far only distributed questionnaires to obtain voluntary information. It lacks the authority to enforce registration. With such a limited mandate, it is more a cosmetic measure to address international concern about Pakistan's religious schools than a mechanism to regulate their functioning.

No national curriculum has been developed for the madrasas. The board has set up three “model madrasas” teaching government-approved versions of the standard madrasa course along with subjects like mathematics, general science, computers and English. But together these three schools have only about 300 students, while as many as 1.5 million students attend unregulated madrasas.

Most important, Musharraf has yet to curb the abuse of madrasas and mosques by religious extremists. During the 2002 national elections, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, an umbrella group of six religious parties, used these institutions for its anti-American and pro-Taliban campaign. Some mullahs, including leaders of political parties that Musharraf has banned, continue to use them to propagate an extremist Islamic agenda.

Musharraf's failure to rein in the madrasas is just one part of his failure to scale back jihadi culture generally. The government has done very little to implement tougher controls on financing of madrasas and extremist groups despite obligations under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373. It even removed the issue of terrorism funding from draft regulations on money laundering.

There is also no evidence of any focused and systematic campaign against homegrown extremists. The government has, it is true, apprehended foreigners with links to Al Qaeda and turned them over to U.S. authorities, but Al Qaeda was only officially banned in Pakistan in March 2003. In his time in power, Musharraf has concentrated hardest on legitimizing and consolidating his military-backed rule. The government has been hesitant to take any step against the religious right because it has needed the MMA's support in Parliament for measures supporting its rule.

But the price Pakistan pays for this dependence on the religious extreme is rising extremist power and sectarian violence at home, including the assassination attempts against the president himself in December. Should Musharraf fail, once again, to do what must be done to eliminate hatred, sectarianism and terrorism in Pakistan, his policies will make his country and the world more dangerous.

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