The government of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province this month placed some 3,000 madrassas (seminaries) under direct control of its own education department. As such, the government will monitor the registration of students, as well as the curricula and examination processes undertaken at these institutions, which educate millions of youngsters. The move is intended to integrate the madrassas into mainstream education.
KP’s ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party stresses that seminary students will benefit, through being provided with a modern education along with their religious learning. It also believes this will help to produce a more enlightened citizenry. “This is a huge step forward in mainstreaming our 2.4 million madrassa students, and a great step towards national integration,” PTI’s chairman, Imran Khan, tweeted.
Not everyone is happy, however – including PTI’s coalition partner, the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which has expressed serious reservations about the policy.
Sabir Hussain, a former president of JI in Peshawar and a former National Assembly member, told Asia Times: “We are opposed to the proposed amendments to the madrassas’ syllabus, which is being changed at the behest of Western NGOs and donor agencies to exclude subjects related to Jihad and finality of prophethood from the curriculum.”
Hussain alleges that the KP government finds itself under obligation to comply with conditions dictated by donors from whom it has procured development loans and grants. “We are currently in negotiation with the PTI to iron out the differences on the reform issue but if they refused to consider our viewpoint, we would spare no time in leaving the coalition government,” he added.
The PTI government has indeed undertaken a number of projects funded by international donor agencies. One of the largest – the Peshawar Sustainable Bus Rapid Transit Corridor (BRT) – is being costed at Rs53 billion (US$478 million), a sum that appears to be covered by a loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The province’s foreign aid outlay for 2017-18 is pitched at Rs82 billion.
The madrassa reforms require a lot of spadework to be done and legislation to be enacted to have any real force. The chances of this happening are not helped, however, by the proximity of general elections scheduled for July. JI also alleges that the government failed to brief religious parties on its plans.
Zahid Khan, central spokesman for the secular Awami National Party (ANP) told Asia Times.“If they were sincere about madrassa reforms, they should have equally distributed money among all the seminaries, but they preferred to grant funds only to Darul Uloom Haqqania and are now bullying others to get registered with the education department.”
Earlier this month, PTI controversially agreed a joint electoral strategy with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Sami (JUI-S), the political wing of the Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary, which is renowned for being the alma mater of Taliban leaders of past and present. In June 2016, the KP government gave a Rs300 million grant to Darul Uloom Haqqania, which Imran Khan claims was in exchange for reform within its madrassa.
“Elections are just around the corner. How can they reform the seminaries at this moment when they do not have time even for the legislation?” said Zahid. The PTI government had failed, he added, to make any meaningful policy changes across health, education or the economy.
Pakistan has long struggled to enact reforms to its madrassas, with religiopolitical elements fiercely resisting any attempts by authorities to submit their institutions to scrutiny or transparency.
Following the Army Public School massacre of 2014 – in which 141 people, including schoolchildren, were killed by the Taliban – the country’s military and civil leaders devised a 20-point National Action Program (NAP) which, among other things, sought registration and regulation of religious seminaries. Sadly, little headway has been made on this objective.
Prior to that, Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, made an unsuccessful attempt in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, to clip the madrassas’ wings. With financial assistance from the US, whose concern about the schools’ role in disseminating jihad around the globe persists to this day, Musharraf tried, in vain, to mainstream their curricula and restrict enrolment of foreign students.
Taliban leaders – including Mohammed Omar, the movement’s former supreme commander – were trained in Pakistan’s madrassas, which have long served as a power base for Islamist parties in Pakistan and provided fodder for insurgencies from Kashmir to Afghanistan.