Sunday, March 20, 2005

Schooling for Terror

from South Asian Terrorism Portal
Guest Writer: Amir Mir
Senior Assistant Editor, Monthly Herald, Dawn Group of Newspapers, Karachi

General Pervez Musharraf's much-publicized plans to modernize the country's 10,000 religious seminaries have met with little success primarily because of his administration's failure to enforce the Madrassa Registration and Regulation Ordinance 2002, which was meant to reform deeni madaris (religious seminaries) by bringing them into the educational mainstream.

Three years after the first commando President of Pakistan promised sweeping reforms to ensure that the religious schools are not used any further to propagate extremist Islam, the country's traditional religious school system that is now rotten to the core, continues to operate as the key breeding ground for the radical Islamist ideology and as the recruitment centre for terrorist networks.

The campaign to reform the country's notorious deeni madaris was launched by General Musharraf in a bid to fight extremism in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States. Many of the Pakistanis who fought alongside al-Qaeda and Taliban troops in Afghanistan had been educated in these religious seminaries, which are spread across the country. The privately funded Islamic schools are commonplace throughout Pakistan and a majority of them owe their existence to General Zia's Islamisation drive. The curriculum offered there is undeveloped and pertains mostly to religious instruction. Some of the books taught, including Mathematics, date back hundreds of years. The result is, the madaris graduates simply cannot compete against others for employment. Absent any real understanding of society and social complexities, they want destruction. They seek to bring society onto their own level, and the only thing they identify with is the religion.

Yet these madaris do provide free education along with boarding and lodging, and this attracts the poor. There are no exact figures about how many madaris may be operating in Pakistan, but rough estimates suggest that there are some one million students studying in over 10,000 madaris.

Since the beginning of 2002, General Musharraf has campaigned to reform the religious schools. In a televised address to the nation in January 2002, the General unveiled a new strategy which would see madaris teach Mathematics, Science, English, Economics and even Computer Science alongside their traditional Islamic programme. "My only aim is to help these institutions overcome their weaknesses and providing them with better facilities and more avenues to the poor children at these institutions. These schools are excellent welfare set-ups where the poor get free board and lodge. And very few madaris run by hardliner parties promote negative thinking and propagate hatred and violence instead of inculcating tolerance, patience and fraternity", said Musharraf in his address.

While embarking on several initiatives to combat zealotry and broaden educational offerings, the Musharraf administration announced a number of measures to make deeni madaris participate in the modernization programme. These reforms included a five-year, $1 billion Education Sector Reform Assistance (ESRA) plan to ensure inclusion of secular subjects in syllabi of religious seminaries; a $100 million bilateral agreement to rehabilitate hundreds of public schools by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), besides increasing access to quality education and the enforcement of Madrassa Registration and Regulation Ordinance 2002 which required deeni madaris to audit their funding and foreign students to register with the Government. At the same time, a Federal Madaris Education Board was established to enable the students at the religious schools to benefit from the national education system by learning Mathematics, English and vocational sciences in addition to the normal madrassa education.

However, three years down the road since Musharraf's historic January 2002 announcement, the so-called modernization campaign has largely failed, and hardly a few cosmetic changes could be introduced in the madrassa system. Most of the religious leaders and Islamist organisations rejected the Government legislation requiring religious seminaries to register and broaden their curricula beyond rote Koranic learning. Under the reform programme, drafted on the advice of the Bush administration and financed by USAID, special Government committees were constituted to supervise and monitor the educational and financial matters and policies of deeni madaris. Most of these schools are sponsored by the country's leading religious parties, be it Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Jamiat Ulema-Pakistan, or Jamat-e-Islami Pakistan, while many others are affiliated with jehadi groups which preach an extremist ideology of religious warfare.

The result is that the deeni madaris are increasingly seen as breeding grounds for the foot-soldiers of the global menace of militant Islam, who are motivated and trained to wage jehad - be it in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, or other parts of the world. Thus the Bush Administration believed that there were madaris in Pakistan that, in addition to religious training, give military training to their students. Probably acting under these very apprehensions, the office of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld leaked in October 2003 a secret memo, perhaps deliberately, to the American media. In the memo, which was actually intended for Rumsfeld's top military and civilian subordinates, the American Defence Secretary wondered: "Is the US capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical Muslim clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against America?"

Three months later in January 2004, the International Crisis Group (ICG) report titled, Unfulfilled Promises: Pakistan's Failure to Tackle Extremism further strengthened the American fears. The report stated: "The failure to curb rising extremism in Pakistan stems directly from the military Government's own unwillingness to act against its political allies among the religious groups. Having co-opted the religious parties to gain constitutional cover for his military rule, Musharraf is highly reliant on the religious right for his regime's survival." The ICG report observed that Pakistan's failure to close madrassas and to crack down on jehadi networks has resulted in a resurgence of domestic extremism and sectarian violence. "The Government inaction continues to pose a serious threat to domestic, regional and international security… If the US and others continue to restrict their pressure on Musharraf to verbal warnings, the rise of extremism in Pakistan will continue unchecked. By increasing pressure on Pakistan, a major source of jehadis will be shut off and Islamic militancy, as a whole will decrease", the ICG stated in its concluding paragraph.

Almost a year later, in December 2004, a report produced by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) presented to the American Congress pointed out: "Although General Musharraf vowed to begin regulating Pakistan's religious schools, and his Government launched a five-year plan to bring the teaching of formal or secular subjects to 8,000 willing madrassas, no concrete action was taken until June of that year, when 115 madrassas were denied access to Government assistance due to their alleged links to militancy… Despite Musharraf's repeated pledges to crack down on the more extremist madrassas in his country, there is little concrete evidence that he has done so. According to two observers, most madrassas remain unregistered, their finances unregulated, and the Government has yet to remove the jehadist and sectarian content of their curricula. Many speculate that Musharraf's reluctance to enforce reform efforts is rooted in his desire to remain on good terms with Pakistan's Islamist political parties, which are seen to be an important part of his political base."

The Lahore-based Daily Times wrote in its February 25, 2005, editorial titled 'Madrassa registration has become a joke': "The National Security Council, we are being told, is going to discuss the issue of registering the madrassas. Might we ask what has happened to the much-touted madrassa registration ordinance 2002? Apparently nothing! …The facts are interesting. Registration forms were sent out to all the madrassas after which the Government waited for the seminaries to get themselves registered. That did not happen. The number of madrassas that did register was a bit of a joke. What did the Government do? Nothing! Why cannot the all-powerful General Musharraf follow up on an eminently sensible scheme?"

However, a World Bank-sponsored working paper published in February 2005 came up with a new angle, stating that "enrolment in the Pakistani madrassas, that critics believe are misused by militants, has been exaggerated by media and a US 9/11 report." The study claimed that less than one per cent of the school-going children in Pakistan go to madrassas, and the proportion has remained constant in some districts since 2001. The study titled 'Religious School Enrolment in Pakistan: A Look at the Data', conducted by Jishnu Das of the World Bank, Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Tristan Zajonc of Harvard University and Tahir Andrabi of Pomona College, sought to dispel general perceptions that enrolment was on the rise saying: "We find no evidence of a dramatic increase in madrassa enrolment in recent years". The funding for the report was provided by the World Bank through Knowledge for Change Trust Fund.

The World Bank study found western media reports highly exaggerated in terms of number of student and total religious schools. "The figures reported by international newspapers such as the Washington Post, saying there were 10 per cent enrolment in madrassas, and an estimate by the International Crisis Group of 33 per cent, were not correct. It is troubling that none of the reports and articles reviewed based their analysis on publicly available data or established statistical methodologies. Bold assertions have been made in policy reports and popular articles on the high and increasing enrolment in Pakistani religious schools". The study found no evidence of a dramatic increase in madrassa enrolment in recent years, stating that the share of madrassas in total enrolment declined before 1975 and has increased slowly since then. Since 2001, total enrolment in madrassas has remained constant in some districts and increased in others, the report added.

However, the South Asia Director of ICG, Samina Ahmed, has challenged the findings of the World Bank study, which questioned the validity of madrassa enrolment statistics provided by the ICG and other expert analysts. Ahmed was quoted in the Dawn newspaper on March 11, 2005, stating: "The authors (of the World Bank report) have insisted that there are at most 475,000 children in Pakistani madrassas, yet Federal Religious Affairs Minister Ejazul Haq says the country's madrassas impart religious education to 1,000,000 children." She asserted that the World Bank findings were directly at odds with the ministry of education's 2003 directory, which said the number of madrassas had increased from 6,996 in 2001 to 10,430. She added that the madrassa unions themselves had put the figure at 13,000 madaris with the total number of students enrolled at 1.5 to 1.7 million.

Questioning the methodology of the World Bank study, Ahmed said: "The trouble is that the authors based their analysis on three questionable sources: the highly controversial 1998 census; household surveys that were neither designed nor conducted to elicit data on madrassa enrolment, and a limited village-based household educational census conducted by the researchers themselves in only three of 102 districts." She said the 1998 census was not only out of date as the authors themselves admitted, but their 2003 educational census was also of little value because it was based on a representative sample of villages, suggesting madaris were mainly a rural phenomenon. She quoted a 2002 survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies which found that a majority of madrassa students came from backward areas. "If the findings of the World Bank study were to be taken at face value, then Pakistan and the international community had little cause to worry about an educational sector that glorified jehad and indoctrinated children in religious intolerance and extremism", the ICG director concluded.

In short, the Musharraf regime's failure to reform the country's 10,000 religious seminaries and to crack down on jehadi networks has resulted in a resurgence of extremism and sectarian violence in the country. The Pakistani military dictator's priority has never been eradicating Islamic extremism, but rather the legitimization and consolidation of his dictatorial rule, for which he seems dependent on the clergy. And the mushroom growth of extremists will continue unabated until and unless the Mullah-Military alliance in Pakistan is effectively put to an end.
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