On January 12, 2002, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan delivered a landmark speech outlining his new policies on domestic terrorism and extremist groups, Kashmir and the Pakistani-Indian relationship, and the registration and reform of Pakistani madrassas. The madrassas, or religious schools, obtained an infamous reputation as the institutions where the “religious students” of the former Taliban government were educated.

An examination of their historical context as well as their contemporary roles highlights the necessity — and the complexities — of reform. Left unanswered is the question of whether or not President Musharraf will be able to successfully implement the changes.

During earlier centuries, the madrassas were well-respected institutions of higher learning, comparable to modern-day MIT, Harvard, or Oxford. According to Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani police officer and a Masters candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, there were only 250 madrassas in 1947, but since then the number has blossomed to about 40,000.

One factor contributing to this rapid increase was the fundamentalism of former president General Zia-ul-Haq who led the Pakistani government in the 1980’s, during which time America and the mujahadeen were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. General Zia, in an effort to endear himself to the religious factions in Pakistan, adopted Islamist policies and elements of the Shari’a law. The number of madrassas increased exponentially during his time in office and many students were sent to Afghanistan to fight.

Today, that same legacy of religious extremism persists in the majority of the madrassas. The government recognizes their role in numerous acts of terrorism and religiously motivated killings around the nation. Many are funded by extremists groups both within Pakistan and in other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran. This funding makes it possible for them to provide free or inexpensive room, board, and tuition to students, most of who are from the poorest families in Pakistan. This form of welfare that the madrassas provide is an attractive economic incentive in a country where the per capita income is about $500.

In addition, a viable public education system that could provide an alternative does not exist; only about 2% of the GDP is spent on education (and up to 40% is spent on maintaining the military). While the government does provide some of the madrassas with grants, many refuse them because they want to maintain their independence from the government and its agenda.

The “hand that feeds” the madrassas then can dictate the direction of the curriculum. At most madrassas, children are taught only in narrowly religious matters, learning about the Koran and fundamentalist Islam, but nothing of other subjects.

According to Mr. Abbas, “it is estimated that there are only 15-20 percent of Madrassas involved in militancy related activities, most of what even 90 percent of the rest are teaching is not only contrary to the spirit of Islam but is far from enlightenment which is the purpose of all education.”

A U.S. State Department official agrees: “A relatively small minority of them are extreme; on the whole they tend to be very conservative and isolated from the rest of the world, and they don’t have a very sophisticated worldview… There are a large number of people involved in the madrassas who are isolated and alienated and that leads them to take an extremist perspective.”

Mr. Abbas estimates that only 3-5% of the madrassas, like some in Karachi, can be considered modern and progressive, teaching their students subjects such as math, science, computers, and history. As he recounts it: “These kids do not know Arabic but they memorize the Koran, all 6346 verses, and they can recite it beautifully, but they do not know the meaning or the spirit without knowing Arabic. They are keeping kids in chains, teaching them conservative Shari’a law….”

Ultimately, students will be prepared only for positions as mullahs and religious scholars, where they will be respected as religious leaders despite their effective religious illiteracy. The students are vulnerable to becoming the unwitting tools of Islamist leaders, to be used in terrorist attacks by extremist groups and even the government intelligence services, or in wars like the one in Afghanistan.

Given the choice, then, most families might prefer that their children weren’t educated at these institutions. Karin Karlekar, a senior researcher with Freedom House, says, “Most parents are probably doing this because there’s not really an alternative. Most parents would prefer that their children become bankers or lawyers or computer specialists and not religious scholars.”

Additionally, according to Mr. Abbas, poor, uneducated families will sometimes enroll their children in a madrassa so that they will receive a religious education; they do this as a sacrifice to God out of gratitude for having a son.

In response to the deficiencies of the education provided by the madrassas and the legitimate threats imposed by their students, the Pakistani government has developed a new, more progressive syllabus that the schools will be required to adopt. The students will continue to study religion, but now must also be familiar with science, math, English, and the history of Pakistan.

As General Musharraf made clear in his speech, “If a child studying at a madrassa does not wish to be a prayer leader and he wants to be a bank official or seek employment elsewhere, he should be facilitated.” He also called for the madrassas to be registered with the government by March 23 of this year. The schools will be required to disclose their sources of income and list the students in attendance. None of the schools will be allowed to accept funding from foreign sources, and the president has promised government funding for schools that comply.

This promise of financial aid may be the necessary impetus to reform. In the past, President Musharraf has spoken out against the most conservative and backward of the madrassas, but previous attempts at a voluntary registration were disappointing.

In Pakistani politics, confronting religious groups is a risky proposition because their support and loyalty is important to government leaders. After September 11, however, the general seems to have solidified and strengthened his opinion on religious extremism and intolerance. Because the international community has encouraged the reform of the madrassas — sometimes strongly — Musharraf may be banking on funds from other nations.

The schools that refuse to adopt the reforms, however, will be closed. As would be expected, the initial response of the community of mullahs and students has been negative. One mullah, Abdul Wahid Zarif, has been quoted as saying, “The government should not interfere with the madrassas because the government does not understand the first thing about it… We will not allow [the government to take over the madrassas], and God willing, Musharraf will not succeed in making this a secular state. Pakistan is an Islamic republic. Its atmosphere should be Islamic. The culture of everything has to be Islamic. We are Muslims, and Islam teaches us we should enter the religion completely, not half-heartedly.”

In this environment, can Musharraf expect to be successful in his mission to reform the extremist madrassas of Pakistan? Mr. Abbas does not think there will be a problem: “Most madrassas are likely to register. The mullahs and other members of the religious element are still shocked by what happened in Afghanistan.” With the financial and political support of the international community, this could be an auspicious time for religious tolerance in Pakistan. Until March 23, we will not know.

This column was reprinted with permission from the Institute for Global Ethics.

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