EducationVolume 12 Issue # 15

Reforming madrasas still elusive

Out of total 20 points of the National Action Plan, approved by the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA), the 10th is registration and regulation of religious seminaries. The plan was created on December 25, 2014, in reaction to the massacre of 133 children by the Taliban. Ostensibly, NAP was designed with the consent of all political parties, and the blessing of both the civil and military leadership, as a comprehensive document detailing ideal steps to rid Pakistan of the menace of terrorism and militancy. However, despite passage of over two years, this idealism is tempered by ground realities, the limited ambit of political will, and the persistent presence of a tenacious, unrelenting enemy. Thus, the country’s course of action is nebulous, unrealised, and incomplete yet.

As planned after thorough deliberations, a crackdown on seminaries in the form of uniform registration, curriculum reform, and routing their finances through banking transactions seemed an uphill task from the beginning. The goal was so volatile that just days after the Peshawar school attack, hardliner religious right parties refused to get on board with the National Action Plan if madrasas were targeted. The net result is that even after passage of over two years, progress on the objective remains stunted and negligible. The ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N’s alleged inclination towards extremist groups proved to be a big hurdle in this regard, as these groups are behind various madrasas in the country. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan also showed a soft corner by stating that the 2.2 million children in Pakistan’s madrasas also had rights on the governments.

It is a regrettable fact that even the official form for registering the 26,465 seminaries did not get the prime minister’s approval till September 2016. In October last year, it was decided in a meeting that the process would be “speeded up” without giving any details on what said speed would entail. The government’s progress on this front has been nothing short of timid and procrastinating. The progress can be assessed from the fact that the Punjab provincial government had closed only two madrasas for their stated involvement in anti-state activities. The province has over 13,782 registered seminaries, according to an official document, shared with the National Assembly last year. The provincial government has completed the task of mapping the seminaries, according to official sources.

Almost all provinces showed the same performance. Sindh, which follows a “zero tolerance policy” towards madrasa links with terrorist groups, shut down 167 seminaries, out of well over 8,000 registered madrasas. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf rules in coalition with the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Qaumi Watan Party, as many as 13 madrasas were shut down. Both provinces – Sindh and Balochistan – have completed the mapping task of only 60% seminaries. Punjab has the largest number of madrasas. The National Assembly was told that north Punjab had approximately 2,000 seminaries while 4,000 are located in central Punjab. A majority, around 7,000 madrasas, are located in south Punjab, hosting around 70% of all seminary students in the province. Of the cities, Multan topped the list with 1,108 seminaries, followed closely by Lahore with 1,102 madrasas. South Punjab’s cities of Muzaffargarh and Rahim Yar Khan followed with 900 and 811 seminaries, respectively. Faisalabad had 483 madrasas while Sargodha had 433.

The Sindh government, however, rejects the assertion that it was going slow on implementing the madrasa-specific clause of the National Action Plan. Rehana Leghari, Special Assistant to the Sindh CM on Human Rights, tells Cutting Edge by telephone that in August 2016, the Sindh government had decided to introduce the Sindh Madrassah Registration Bill 2016, through which every seminary would have to be approved by the local commissioner. The Sindh Cabinet also approved the draft of the Sindh Maddaris Registration Bill. Ms. Leghari explained that a new process of registration would be introduced for existing seminaries which have to obtain no-objection certificates from the deputy commissioner, superintendent of police, Sindh Building Control Authority and religious authorities. The registration would be for a period of two years after which it would be renewed accordingly.

Although the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government has no plans on record to bring about any legislation to reform madrasas, it has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Darul Uloom Haqqania as part of its efforts to reform the seminary. Earlier, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led KP government had set aside a fund of Rs. 300 million in the provincial budget for fiscal year 2016-17 for Darul Uloom Haqqania, a move which drew criticism from rivals, who termed the party pro-Taliban. The KP government, however, fends off criticism by asserting that Darul Uloom Haqqania would bring reforms and make its curriculum on a par with other schools.

One of the most controversial and sensitive issues about madrasas has been foreign funding to many of them. It has always been a difficult topic to cover. For one, most seminaries are unregistered, making it difficult to deduce the exact source of their funding. Even when seminaries are registered, questioning the source of funding remains a no-go area because of the sensitive topic of religion. A police report disclosed last year that a number of seminaries based in Punjab and other parts of the country received funding from foreign countries. Not surprisingly, the highest funding comes from the Middle East.

Mushtaq Sukhera, Punjab Inspector General of Police (IGP), said recently that 147 madrasas in the province were receiving foreign funds. He told the Senate Standing Committee on Rules of Procedure and Privileges (SSCRPP) that there were nearly 150 madrasas that were receiving funds from foreign countries. One of the most important aspects of reform is upgrading and mainstreaming the syllabuses, being taught at madrasas of various schools of thought. A spokesperson for Minister of State for Federal Education Muhammad Balighur Rehman told Cutting Edge by telephone that the Wafaq-ul-Madaris has agreed to adopt the syllabus of the Federal Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (FBISE) for its matriculation and intermediate levels in seminaries.

He said that a meeting in this regard was held four months back to discuss devising curricula of seminaries as prescribed in the National Action Plan (NAP). The meeting contemplated bringing madrasas’ degrees on a par with secular institutions. The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training will endorse the establishment of the boards of Tanzeem-ul-Madaris on the pattern of intermediate and secondary boards. The FBISE would provide capacity building training to the exam setters, paper checkers and markers. He claimed that for Shahadah-tul-Aliya (Master’s degree) in Arabic and Islamic studies, madrasa students will have to take exams for compulsory subjects like English, Islamiat and Pakistan Studies in the B.A. However, he was not sure how the other subjects, related to different religious disciplines, would be reformed.

The fresh wave of terrorist attacks in Lahore and Sehwan, as well as in other parts of the country, has brought the madrasas and the education being imparted there, under focus once again. There is no denying the fact that a vast majority of madrasas is playing a crucial role in promoting education and enhancing the literacy rate in the country. However, it is also an undeniable fact that there are a number of seminaries which are brainwashing their students, spreading hatred in society and even providing suicide bombers to the terrorist organisations. Of course, closing all seminaries is neither possible nor a solution to the issue. However, regulating them through legislation, registration and stopping their foreign funding could be a major step towards resolving the issue of terrorism in the country. Also, reforming the syllabus being taught in madrasas of various schools of thought in the country by a committee comprising educationists and ulema could help bring them into the mainstream.