COMMENT: Redeeming Pakistan’s madrassas —Saleem H Ali
Although some of the radical madrassas will still need to be weeded out, embracing Islamic education with an integrated reform strategy is more likely to reduce militancy, rather than lamenting madrassas as arcane institutions
As policy-makers and the media abroad agonise over the situation in Pakistan’s Swat valley, madrassas are back on the front page in papers such as The New York Times. The linkage between extremism and education should be fairly obvious but it seems to still elude most analysts. Indeed the word “Taliban” means “students” in Pashto, suggesting an inherent connection of these militants with some form of “learning”.
Incendiary information at these Islamic seminaries is once again being considered both a symptom and a cause of Pakistan’s problems. The latest mantra appears to be that because government schools have failed, madrassas are filling a social void that offers free education and sustenance for the rural poor but causes massive radicalisation at the same time.
Madrassas in Pakistan are certainly a matter of concern but rather than finding ways to diminish their recruitment, they need to be engaged and internally reformed. These seminaries already have a major physical and financial infrastructure in the country that can be harnessed positively alongside investments in government schools.
Only four years ago, famed terrorism analysts Peter Bergen (among the few western journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden) and Swaty Pandey had argued in The New York Times that concern over Islamic education was all a ‘madrassa myth’. Basing their analysis on a controversial World Bank study (co-authored by two Pakistani-American academics) about the actual number of madrassas in Pakistan, Bergen and Pandey had argued that “while madrassas are an important issue in education and development in the Muslim world, they are not and should not be considered a threat to the United States” because of their relatively small number and since terrorists who attacked the West had largely not been educated in madrassas.
However, as many of the suicide bombers in recent months have been traced back to madrassas, the pendulum has swung again, as now analysts discover that civil strife in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be just as dangerous for Western interests. Focusing on the core problem of curricular reform can provide us a path out of this ambivalence about madrassas.
While growing up in Pakistan, I attended a private English-medium school but every afternoon, I would also receive Islamic learning from a religious scholar who hailed from a prominent madrassa in Lahore. As I reflect back on that time, the core problem of contemporary Islamic education remains a general antipathy towards critical thinking.
Similar concerns have existed in other religions as well, but Islamic schools in Pakistan have contended with a host of circumstances that compounded these challenges. The sectarian divide between Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan was accentuated by funding from Iran and Saudi Arabia to specific strains of madrassas, particularly in southern Punjab. Exclusionary doctrines rather than pluralistic interpretations of Islamic texts were preached by both sides to gain more adherents. Religious political parties as well as the Pakistani government and security organisations capitalised on the fruits of radicalisation since unquestioning allegiance was easy to achieve with curricula that portrayed the world in stark terms of good and evil.
But the radicalisation of madrassas should not lead us to give up in despair. In other parts of the world, madrassas have served an appropriate educational purpose. For example in West Bengal, India, a survey of Islamic schools in January 2009 found that because of the higher quality education at madrassas, even non-Muslims were actively enrolling in them. This was remarkably akin to how in Pakistan many Muslim families send their children to Christian schools because of the high quality of teaching and discipline.
Hindu enrolment in several Bengali madrassas, for example, was as high as 64 percent because many of these institutions offered vocational training programmes. Such examples can certainly be emulated in Pakistani madrassas as well. We should not give up on madrassas but rather help bring them back to their heyday of pluralistic learning.
The strategy of ‘draining the swamp’ by establishing sparkling government schools alongside madrassas, which appears to be the current approach from development donors, is likely to have limited success. Madrassas will immediately resort to a defensive strategy of labelling the government schools in conspiratorial terms and still be able to recruit students quite zealously from religious families. Investment to improve education is needed across Pakistan in all kinds of schools, including madrassas.
The only way to solve the madrassa problem is to engage in a process of reform that focuses on pluralism and conflict resolution skills that should be facilitated by the Pakistani government with the assistance of other Muslim countries and ulema.
There are already some positive moves from the ulema in Pakistan. Religious clerics from both the Deobandi Tablighi Jama’at and the Barelvi Sunni Tehreek have publicly rejected the Taliban approach to Islam. Madrassas such as the venerable Jamia Ashrafia in Lahore are now willing to initiate specific teaching modules that stress the importance of non-violence and respect for other faith traditions.
Momentum elsewhere towards such efforts is exemplified by reforms in places such as Indonesia’s Guluk-Guluk pesantren, where Islamic environmental education is being used to develop peace-building skills. During my visit to central Java last year, I visited several Islamic schools that are producing very balanced and employable young professionals. Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim country, should share some of its success in improving madrassa curricula with Pakistan.
Where Western donors can help is to provide vocational training and apprenticeship programs for madrassa graduates that will be consistent with their religious values. Careers as healthcare apprentices and disaster relief professionals are particularly appropriate in this regard.
Although some of the radical madrassas will still need to be weeded out, embracing Islamic education with an integrated reform strategy is more likely to reduce militancy, rather than lamenting madrassas as arcane institutions to be eroded by naively creating an alternate market for schools.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His most recent book is Islam and Education: conflict and conformity in Pakistan’s madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net