New Pakistani leader’s education aims may include reining in religious schools

Pakistani Muslim students attend a madrassa to learn the Quran, in Karachi, Pakistan, on March 15, 2018. Religious schools in Pakistan, most of them in mosques, are the only source of education for millions of children. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

LAHORE, Pakistan (RNS) — Like several Pakistani leaders before him, Prime Minister Imran Khan came into office vowing to reform the country’s 38,000 madrassas — the Islamic seminaries that for decades have educated the poor while also promoting sectarianism, extremism and hatred for the West.

After taking office in August, Khan said reforming the madrassas was a priority of his government. He wanted to give the estimated 3.5 million children currently enrolled in madrassas an opportunity to pursue mainstream education.

“Madrassa students should be able to become doctors, engineers, judges and generals,” Khan said in his inaugural address.

“Imran Khan’s wish is not his alone,” said A.H. Nayyar, a physicist and independent educational expert based in Islamabad. “Reforming madrassas has been wished for a long time by many rulers, but all failed.”

Madrassas attract mostly poor students in a country where the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child recently found that around 22.6 million children, particularly girls from traditional families, don’t attend school.

The narrow religious education that madrassa students receive, said Nayyar, “does not make them eligible for any societal function other than clerical leadership.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on Jan. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

In October, the prime minister laid out his reform plans at a meeting of religious school leaders, saying he wanted to eliminate private schools, which are largely attended by well-to-do Pakistanis, improve the public education system that educates the country’s poor and introduce a nationwide curriculum that madrassas would also need to follow.

“It is of utmost importance that we have a uniform education system without discrimination in the country,” he told the clerics.

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The government oversees the five madrassa boards affiliated with various Islamic sects, but Khan’s plan is likely to face opposition from the religious political parties.

Pakhtunkhwa Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam political party, which runs many madrassas, has warned Khan about seeking to alter the schools.

“The government is trying to please the Western powers by talking about reforms in madrassas,” said Rehman. “Any action against madrassas will be seen as action against Islam. We will protest and force the government to withdraw its decisions.”

The suspicion of reform as an infiltration of Western values is common among madrassa supporters and students.

“Why does government want to reform madrassas? We are better than the Americanized private schools that spread vulgarity,” said Madiha Fayyaz, a madrassa student in Lahore.

Many madrassa students also believe their education is sufficient. “I have learnt Quran and that is enough for me to survive in the world,” said Mohammad Hashim, a madrassa student in Lahore. “I don’t feel the need to study anything else, as my teacher said that more education spoils a man.”

But asked about other subjects at his madrassa, Hashim was less confident.

“We are taught computer skills too, but we are only allowed to see Islamic material online,” he said.

Pakistan’s madrassas flourished in the 1980s under the military dictatorship of Gen. Ziaul Haq. During the Soviet-Afghan war, the seminaries got massive funding from the United States and Persian Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia, and madrassa students called “mujahedeen,” or holy warriors, trained and went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.

Along with the Saudi money came the radical ideologies of Wahhabism, a strictly conservative Sunni sect that fanned the flames of sectarianism. Long after the end of the Soviet war, the schools not only proliferated in numbers, but became overt and covert partners in religious militancy.

Since 2000, Pakistan’s security agencies have kept a close eye on madrassas that produce radicalized youth and feed recruits to Islamist militant outfits in the country.

Though the foreign funding problem is now under control, according to Nayyar, there is still a political struggle for control of the madrassas. He questioned whether the politicians’ reforms are truly aimed at education, or at reducing the power of lslamic leaders to put hordes of madrassa students into the streets for political agitation.

“Whenever there is any anti-Islam activity our students are the first ones who take to streets,” said Amjad Butt, a madrassa graduate and a teacher at Jamia Ashrafia Seminary in Lahore.

“Demand for the madrassas has a lot to do with poverty and overpopulation,” said Hira Sajjad, principal of a public school in Lahore. “Sending two to three children to a madrassa eases off the poor families of extra financial burden. They don’t have to provide food and clothing to their children and as a result they don’t care much about the education.”

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Naila Inayat


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  • The Pakistani situation, as described, appears to show how a whole nation can forfeit its sense and progress in a very short period of time. All you have to do is mis-teach a generation or two of kids and “poof”—–craziness takes over. Meanwhile, this all sounds like Khan will be in personal danger and permanently.

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  • “Like several Pakistani leaders before him, Prime Minister Imran Khan came into office vowing to reform the country’s 38,000 madrassas”

    The sentence suggests that reforms have been attempted several times, and have failed. When this happens, left-leaning liberals take recourse to some or another linear view of history: Muslims are regressing, they are not progressing, they are stuck in a medieval age, they are stuck in a Stone Age. Such explanations can only irritate, for all these left-leaning liberals are sending their children to Khan Academy, and Khan (of Khan Academy fame) is very much a Muslim.

    I suggest a different explanation. Liberalism, as it is understood in the social sciences, consists in me looking more secure than you. Being more secure than you, I incur certain obligations—a 21st century of noblesse oblige, as it were.

    Consider [Ref 1]. One assumption of [Ref 1] is that Sikh-Americans are more advanced than Muslim-Americans, and thus have the obligation of taking a beating on behalf of Muslims. (Many Sikh-Americans are attacked because they are mistaken to be a Muslim.) A second assumption of [Ref 1] was that Muslim-Americans will not speak up on the behalf of Sikh-Americans. That is to say, Muslim-Americans cannot request the public, “Racists of America! If you want to attack Muslims at all, we’ll deal with it; please don’t attack Sikh-Americans out of mistaken identity.”

    Given these two assumptions, Sikh-Americans have a noblesse oblige: they must not throw Muslim-Americans under the bus. Indeed, one person submitted an email to [Ref 1] worded thus: “Sikhs don’t respect other religions in the hope of gaining respect back from them. They just do it!”

    What if some Muslim-American were to request the public, “Racists of America! If you want to attack anybody all, at least attack us; please don’t attack Sikh-Americans out of mistaken identity?” The author of [Ref 1] would not know how to see himself as liberal. He would lose the self-image of being liberal. His liberalism depends on the Muslim being less secure than him.

    [Ref 1] is not an isolated phenomenon. It is not confined to Sikhs and Muslims. All demographic groups are involved. In fact, the most secure (in the worldview of the social sciences) are secular Caucasians. Sikh-Americans are less secure than secular Caucasians. Sikh-Americans will not write an article titled, “Why Sikhs don’t throw Caucasians under the bus.”

    Being more secure than all other demographic groups, the secular Caucasian has noblesse oblige to all.

    This is also the role of the books How Jews Became White, How the Irish Became White and the Karma of Brown Folk. In these books, “white” is a figure of speech, whose reference is a sense of security. To be white is to be secure.

    Trump voters are those Caucasians who don’t feel secure.

    I do not think the malaise is in Pakistani Muslims. The malaise is in the social sciences.

    Ref 1

  • PM Imran Khan is unlike the previous Pakistani politicians who would sent their children to Western universities while championing the madrassa for their masses. Unless the Pakistani madrassa can produce professional and religious scholars inspired by the contributions during the Golden Age of Islam, changes to its curriculum and management is about time. I sense it would be an ardous task as self -interest groups would politicise the issue for all the wrong reasons.