Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The role of religious schools in education system of Pakistan’s development

By: Muhammad Mahtab Bashir

The Education Sector Reform plan presented by the government In January 2002 aimed at modernising the education system. A major objective was to develop a more secular system in order to offset mounting international scrutiny and pressure to curb religious extremism in the wake of 9/11. But as in the past there has been poor follow-through.

Madrassa is an Arabic word colloquially means school. In its secondary meaning, a madrassa is an educational institution offering instruction in Islamic subjects including, but not limited to, the Quran, the sayings (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad, jurisprudence (fiqh), and law. Historically, madrasas were distinguished as institutions of higher studies and existed in contrast to more elementary schools called kuttab that taught only the Quran. In other words, madrassa is a primary, secondary or advanced levels school that promotes an Islamic-based curriculum also refers to Islamic religious school.

Although some madrasas teach secular subjects, in general madrasas offer a religious based curriculum, focusing on the Quran and Islamic texts. Beyond instruction in basic religious tenets, some argue that a small group of radicalized madrasas, specifically located near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, promote a militant form of Islam and teach their Muslim students to fight non-believers and stand against what they see as the moral depravity of the West. Other observers suggest that these schools are wholly unconcerned with religious scholarship and focused solely on teaching violence.

Education in Pakistan has preformed abysmally ever since the country’s inception, further deteriorating after Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Huq’s implementation of programs which emphasized Islam over secular instruction in the early 1980’s. From 1947, the year of Pakistan’s independence, to 2003 the percent of the literate population grew by only 19% (16% to 35%). India by comparison increased its literacy rate in the same period of time by 47% (18% to 65%). These numbers help explain the current disparity in the prosperity levels of a escalating India and stagnant Pakistan. The Minister for Religious Affairs, Ejaz ul-Haq, son of the late former President Zia ul-Haq, is responsible for implementing madrassa reform. It was Zia ul-Haq's Islamization policies in the 1980s that resulted in an expansion of the madrassa network to support the Afghanistan jihad against the Soviets and that incorporated militant interpretations of Islam into the public school curriculum. Minister Ejaz ul-Haq has so far been reluctant to confront the prominent religious parties that have ties to foreign-funded madrassas and are resisting government reform.

A strong and effective madrassa education system in Pakistan will help to ensure that the country steers toward a path of stability, moderation, and prosperity in the years to come, and should therefore be a top priority for Washington in its relations with Islamabad. Lack of adequate education opportunities in Pakistan has contributed to the development of extremist ideologies that have fueled terrorism and sectarian tensions as well as stifled economic growth. Fostering development and reform of the public education system will not only contribute to Pakistani economic prosperity and social tolerance, it will help improve the image of the United States by demonstrating American interest in the human development of average Pakistani citizens.

The role of the madrassa in Pakistan and its contribution to Islamic militancy has been the subject of intense debate in U.S. academic and policy circles. Observers have been unable to agree on the actual numbers of madrassas and madrassa students in Pakistan, and some studies reveal that the international media has exaggerated these figures during the last few years. A World Bank study from 2005, for example, says Pakistani madrassas account for less than 1 percent of total academic enrollment in the country. In April 2002, Dr. Mahmood Ahmed Ghazi, the former Pakistani Minister of Religious Affairs, put the number of madrassas at about 10,000, with 1.7 million students.

While most madrassas in Pakistan are not churning out terrorist foot soldiers, there are a handful of religious seminaries that promote anti-West, pan-Islamic, and violent ideologies. Many of the older madrassas have well-established reputations for producing serious Islamic thinkers, while others provide welfare services to the poor through free religious education, lodging, and food. A madrassa student learns how to read, memorize, and recite the Quran, and those with advanced theological training become Ulema (religious scholars). Each of the different schools of Islamic thought in Pakistan, including the Sunni Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahle-Hadith (Salafi), and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) as well as the Shiia, runs its own seminaries.

From a counter terrorism perspective, U.S. policymakers should focus their attention on the handful of madrassas in Pakistan that have well-established links to terrorism. These madrassas are likely well known to the Pakistani authorities and increasingly to U.S. intelligence and policy officials, and deserve special focus in our counterterrorism policies. The Darul Uloom Haqqania located near Peshawar in the Northwest Frontier Province, for example, served as training ground for Taliban leaders and a recruiting center for Pakistani militants fighting in Kashmir.
The Musharraf government promulgated the "Paklistan Madrassa Education Board Ordinance 2001" to establish three model madrassa institutions in Karachi, Sukkur, and Islamabad that would include English, math, computer science, economics, political science, law, and Pakistan studies in their curricula. Through the "Voluntary Registration and Regulation Ordinance 2002," the government promised funding to madrassas that formally registered with the government. In a more controversial step, the Pakistani government demanded that madrassas expel all foreign students by December 31, 2005. Islamist groups vehemently resisted the government's efforts, however, and authorities backed down and made public statements indicating that they would not use force or shut down noncompliant madrassas to enforce the directives.
The U.S. should refrain from getting involved in Pakistan’s broader madrassa reform efforts and accept that many of the traditional madrassas serve a useful purpose in educating Islamic intellectuals and providing shelter and food for impoverished youth. While a few Pakistani madrassas represent an international terrorist threat and deserve American scrutiny and condemnation, most madrassas should be left alone.

To conclude, U.S. efforts to encourage education reform and development in Pakistan should be consistent, sustained, and multi-pronged. Ensuring transparency and efficiency in the education bureaucracy is equally important to encouraging local community involvement and accountability in the day-to-day functioning of individual schools, especially in poor, rural areas. The development of a strong and effective education system in Pakistan is central to promoting moderation, tolerance, and economic development. Convincing the Pakistani government to take firm action against the handful of madrassas supporting violent extremism also is necessary, not only for the future stability of Pakistan, but also to prevent future international terrorism.

Pakistan hosting over 10,000 madrasas, Pakistan’s religious and public educational infrastructure are of ongoing concern in the United States. In an economy that is marked by extreme poverty and underdevelopment, costs associated with Pakistan’s cash-strapped public education system have led many Pakistanis to turn to madrasas for free education room, and board. Links between Pakistani madrasas and the ousted Afghan Taliban regime, as well as alleged connections between some madrasas and Al Qaeda, have led some observers consider the reform of Pakistan’s madrasa system as an important component of combating anti-U.S. terrorism and in helping to stabilize the recently-formed Afghan government.

A report says that one of the four suicide bombers that carried out the July 2005 terrorist attacks on the London transportation system had spent time at a Pakistani madrasa with alleged links to extremists. In response, Pakistani authorities renewed plans to require all madrasas to register with the government and provide an account of their financing sources. The government had previously offered incentives to madrasas that agreed to comply with registration procedures, including better training, salaries, and supplies. Madrasa leaders reportedly agreed to the registration and financial accounting requirements in September 2005, but succeeded in preserving an anonymity provision for their donors. As of January 2006, approximately 7,000 of Pakistan’s estimated 13,000 madrasas had registered with authorities. In a more controversial step, the Pakistani government also demanded that madrasas expel all of their foreign students by December 31, 2005. Of an estimated 1,700 foreign madrasa students, 1,000 had reportedly left Pakistan by January 1, 2006. Some nationalist and Islamist groups have vehemently resisted the government’s efforts, and authorities have made public statements indicating that they do not plan to use force or shut down noncompliant madrasas in order to enforce the directives. The Brussels-based group in a report on Pakistan’s education sector points out that the public, government-run schools, which educate the vast majority of children poorly rather than the madrasas or the elite private schools are most in need of significant reforms and an increase in resources to reverse the influence of jihadi groups, reduce risks of internal conflict and diminish the widening fissures in Pakistani society. Both the government and donors urgently need to need give this greater priority, it recommends. “The state is falling significantly short of its constitutional obligation to provide universal primary education. And while the demand for education remains high, poorer families will only send their children to a school system that is relevant to their everyday lives and economic necessities. The failure of the public school system to deliver such education is contributing to the madrasa boom as it is to school dropout rates, child labour, delinquency and crime. In the absence of state support, powerful Islamist groups are undermining the reform initiatives of civil society to create a sustainable, equitable and modernised public education system that educates girls as well as boys. Despite its stated commitments, the Musharraf government appears unwilling to confront a religious lobby that is determined to prevent public education from adopting a more secular outlook. Public school students are confined to an outdated syllabus and are unable to compete in an increasingly competitive job market against the products of elite privates schools that teach in English, follow a different curriculum and have a fee structure that is unaffordable to most families.”The public school system’s deteriorating infrastructure, falling educational standards and distorted educational content impact mostly, if not entirely, on Pakistan’s poor, thus widening linguistic, social and economic divisions between the privileged and underprivileged and increasing ethnic and religious alienation that has led to violent protests. Far from curtailing extremism, the public school system risks provoking an upsurge of violence if its problems are not quickly and comprehensively addressed.” The government should coordinate the madrasa curriculum with the public school curriculum until the Curriculum Wing completes a comprehensive review and reform of the national syllabus.For months, Pakistani President Musharraf has been locked in a fierce political struggle with leaders of Pakistan’s religious schools, or madrasas. Represented by the powerful political organization Wifaqul-Madaris, the madrasa leaders have promised to ignore or resist Musharraf’s recent efforts aimed at expelling foreign students from the nation’s thousands of religious schools.

This battle is far from an inconsequential political struggle in some far off land. Critical to America’s long-term efforts in combating Islamic extremism will be our ability to promote gradual reform in Muslim countries that maintain friendly relationships with the United States. In assisting states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan in developing democratic and prosperous societies, obstacles will inevitably arise. Nowhere is the extent of this challenge more evident than in Pakistan, thanks in large part to their counterproductive education system Currently, one to two million children are educated in the more than 10,000 madrasas operating in Pakistan. Reports have indicated that about 10% of these religious schools have links to Islamic militants. Thus, 100,000 - 200,000 students are currently educated in madrasas with ties to militant groups, making Pakistan a virtual factory for producing Islamic extremists.

Unfortunately, as bad as the madrasa situation is, it is not the only educational problem in Pakistan, the public school system has also suffered due to a strong influence of extremist ideals. Fundamentalists, through the Islamic Ideology Council, have wielded considerable influence over Pakistani education, especially in the selection of textbooks. To offer a sample of the general persuasions of the Islamic Ideology Council, one must look no further than the Pakistani daily, Islamabad Khabrain. Its pages celebrated that; “The Islamic Ideology Council has said that the imposition of a ban on jihadi activities is synonymous to preventing the Muslims from performing a religious obligation.” Thus, it is no surprise that students are taught disdain for the West, the importance of jihad, and the ideal of resurrecting the Caliphate.

By adopting and redefining a moderate curriculum unanimously, in madaris of Pakistan, the image of so called terrorist curriculum and radical ideology under the roofs of these madaris can justifiably be averted, so that the a clear and vivid picture can be portrayed not only inside Pakistan but across the world. And in such ways madaris education system can also boost the literacy rate of the country.

Published in daily THE POST.

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