The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan faces stiff resistance from religious parties for the registration of seminaries. It will not only undermine the government’s efforts against terrorism but also disrupts its agenda for a uniform syllabus for all students across the country. It will also allow religious parties, like the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan-F (JUI-F), to continue the use of madrassa students for their political and personal interests.
The government has failed to regularise seminaries because it cannot use force for it as religious parties have a popular base across the country. The government wants to keep an eye on their foreign funding and syllabus but religious scholars oppose it on the pretext that the government seeks to close down the institutions to appease foreign powers. The result is that the government only succeeded in removing some loudspeakers from mosques, which were reinstalled later.
According to the latest statistics, only 295 madrassas have applied for registration out of over 30,000 religious schools in the country. Some say their number has exceeded over 100,000. Though the government is optimistic about completing the process in the coming months after written assurances from them, yet critics fear madrassas will continue to elude reforms and the present government will fail to complete the task, like past governments. Recently, clerics and seminary students took to the streets against the enactment of the Islamabad Capital Territory Waqf Properties Act, 2020. They said the Waqf Act was “un-Islamic” and aimed at changing the ideological status of the country, because such laws existed only in secular countries, like Egypt and Turkey. The Waqf Properties Act became a law on September 24, 2020, as part of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) requirements after several months of deliberations.
On the other hand, the top leadership of five mainstream seminary boards, under the banner of Ittehad-i-Tanzeemat Madaris Pakistan, has decided to submit suggestions to the government on the registration process once again. Led by Mufti Muneebur Rehman, the Ittehad-i-Tanzeemat Madaris Pakistan is a representative body of five seminary boards. The boards represent the four mainstream schools of thought — Barelvi, Shia, Deobandi and Ahle Hadith — while the fifth affiliates seminaries of Jamaat-i-Islami.
Madrassa reforms were initiated in 2003, but subsequent governments remained unsuccessful in enforcing them and failed to streamline the affairs of seminaries, including their sources of funding and the list of students. They have even not been able to check the rampant practice of building madrassas on government or private land.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto attempted to control the institutions through an ordinance in 1994, which was later withdrawn. In 2002, President Musharraf attempted to register them after 9/11, however, the move was fiercely resisted by religious parties which were his major allies. The Wifaqul Madaris, the biggest platform, runs around 13,000 institutions in Pakistan. The Tanzeemul Madaris monitors around 6,000 to 8,000 institutions while Wifaqul Ulema-e-Shia Pakistan and Wifaqul Ulema-e-Salfia Pakistan manage about 2,500 madrassas each. The Jamaat-e-Islami runs around 1,000 institutions. Over 22 million children, mostly poor, study in seminaries.
Under the National Action Plan, announced by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to root out terrorism after the Peshawar tragedy in December 2014, madrassas were to be registered and reformed. However, the civil administration has failed to complete its task of their registration, which may spoil gains of the military action. According to a 2015 government report, nearly 300 madrassas in Pakistan received financial support from around 10 countries and officials admitted they had no idea about the total amount of funds or any other kind of support seminaries had received. The interior ministry, in a written response to a question, had told the National Assembly that 285 seminaries were receiving funds from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, the US, the UK, and South Africa. Some 147 seminaries received foreign funding in the Punjab, 95 in Gilgit-Baltistan, 30 in Balochistan, 12 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and one in Sindh. In January 2015, the interior minister had told the Senate that around 80 seminaries in the country had received Rs300 million from around a dozen countries.
It is a fact that the religious institutes of the country have been resisting their registration on one pretext or the other. Between August 2019 and October 2020, the education ministry established the Directorate General of Religious Education (DGRE) to facilitate the registration process and 16 regional offices were set up in Multan, Lahore, Rawalpindi/Islamabad, Karachi, Sukkur, Hyderabad, Peshawar, D.I. Khan, Swat, Quetta, Loralai, Khuzdar, Muzaffarabad, Mirpur, Gilgit and Skardu. The centres also aimed to help registered madrassas open bank accounts. Some 133 focal persons affiliated with the relevant deputy commissioner office were nominated in each district across the country. The government announced the process of registration would start from October 5, 2020. However, Ittehad-i-Tanzeemat Madaris directed all seminaries to wait for further instructions on the registration process, on the pretext that education has been devolved to the provinces under the 18th Amendment and the role of the federal education ministry to register religious institutions is illegal.
It appears that madrassas will evade the registration process once again. Undoubtedly, religious schools have been part of Pakistan and India for centuries. Their contribution to society by educating, feeding and sheltering poor students has been matchless in the world. However, they need reforms now. A few seminaries have also been involved in promoting terrorism, violence and sectarian hatred. They have not only given a bad name to the country but also maligned all religious schools. Hence, it is in their own interest to register themselves.