Pakistan’s literacy rate is officially 57% which is still one of the lowest in the world while the out of school population in Pakistan amounts to the second largest. The state has miserably failed in its constitutional duty to provide free and quality education to all children aged 5-16. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that a large number of people monetarily cannot afford to send children to schools. Almost one fourth of country’s population is living below the poverty line and is forced to strive hard in order to earn enough to scrape by. In these conditions quite often a child going to school is a potential loss of an earning hand for a large impoverished family. A good education seems like a luxury which not everyone can afford.
Among such unfortunate families, many children are either sent to jobs as underage workers or sent to madrassas where the parents are free from having to feed them. In addition to this, an added incentive is perceived in dedicating one or more children to studying and serving Islam in madrassas. The religious factor plays a key role in deciding for children’s enrollment in the madrassas. Evidence also indicates that households diversify by sending one child to school and another to a madrassa. Madrassas originated as trust institutions with the purpose of training religious functionaries, Islamic scholars and imparting free Quranic teachings to poor children while providing social services such as free food, clothing and boarding to their students. These factors increase madrassas’ appeal in areas where educational alternatives are lacking or expensive. A report by Social Policy and Development Center (SPDC) revealed that only 6% of madrassa students cite religious reasons for attending madrassas, while 89% cited economic reasons.
Madrassas are found across the breadth of this country. While their exact numbers remain contested, according to conservative estimates there are approximately 20,000 madrassas in Pakistan (USCIRF 2011). At the time of independence, there were 137 madrassas in Pakistan with their number increasing each year. However the largest increase in their number was witnessed in General Zia’s era during which they flourished owing to state’s patronage and sponsorship. Zia’s education policy of 1979 envisaged 5,000 mosque schools and established a National Committee for ‘Deeni Madaris’ to transform madrassas “into an integral part of our educational system”. The madrassas struck gold at the time of Aghan jihad when ISI funneled billions of Saudi and US dollars into the madrassas and madrassas became the breeding ground of jihadis. The madrassas grew into much more than religious school where not only military training was imparted but the students were also invigorated through fiery speeches by the teachers to prepare them for jihad. According to one estimate, Saudi Arabia reportedly spent more than one billion dollars per year to fund madrassas responsible for recruiting, mobilizing public opinion, training jihadis and supporting other vehicles of religious militancy in Pakistan. The students of madrassas, particularly those situated along the border with Afghanistan also grew with an influx of recruits from Central Asia, North Africa, Burma, Bangladesh, Chechnya and Afghan refugees. Zia allowed foreign madrassa students free entry and movement within the country, simultaneously encouraging them to join the Jihad in Afghanistan.
The state has no control over or involvement in madrassa curriculum. Although ‘Dars-e-Nizami’ is the semi-official syllabus of most of the madrassas, each madrassa has its own curriculum according to its particular sectarian interpretation of Islam. The curriculum contains hate content which glorifies violence and portrays violent Jihad as the true destiny through which the dream of global Islam would be realized. As a result of unlimited funding and no accountability, the madrassas have evolved from religious schools to sanctuaries and meeting places for terrorists and militants preaching terrorism. The madrassas are constantly spewing out young people with an archaic and exclusive mindset trained on sectarian content, intending to enforce the socio-economic system of 1400 years ago while exhibiting extreme intolerance and bigotry for other sects and religious minorities. While the majority of madrassas do not impart military training or such education, at least 10-15% of madrassas are affiliated with violent extremist groups. These madrassas teach a brand of violent political jihad, extol suicide bombing and impart hate and sadism in the students.
There have been conclusive links between these madrassas and terrorist organizations. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its later offshoot, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) grew out of such jihadi madrassas and established their headquarters in Punjab. Both the SSP and the LJ have been responsible for providing recruits, finances and weapons to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) contributing to and assisting in its rise while also serving as al-Qaeda’s principal allies in the region. The countrywide network of mosques and madrassas remains major center of jihadi recruitment to date, providing recruits for internal sectarian conflicts, the regional jihad in Afghanistan, against India, and the global jihad against the West.
The jihadi hydra monster which is spreading extremism, violence and bigotry can be controlled by regulating its breeding grounds. These extremist groups create individuals who do not respect other’s basic human rights, instead extol an ideology according to which anyone not submissive enough will have to be obliterated. All the unregistered madrassas should be eradicated and those registered should teach only the state approved curriculum with properly trained teachers selected by the state. Gen. Musharraf tried to introduce an element of nominal control as an overture to American pressure which by and large failed. The admission of foreign students should be especially regulated and security cameras be installed in order to monitor the situation especially in the tribal areas. As long as these seminaries continue breeding new trainees, the problem of terrorism cannot be effectively solved.
Sources: ICG Asia Report 2009, SPDC.