Alternatives to madressahs
May 20, 2010 and May 27, 2010*
Established at first as an institution of higher studies, a madressah (Arabic plural "madaris") initially taught law, Islamic sciences and philosophy. During the 11th and 12th centuries, madaris specialised in law and jurisprudence. Today's madressah is an Islamic religious school (seminary) where students, as young as nine or ten, at times even younger, learn religious education, schooled first of all in reading and then in religious studies. Initially a part of a mosque, madaris only later became separate institutions. With the introduction of Western education under colonial rule their curriculum underwent a change.
A madressah is not a Quranic school, or maktab, a place where Muslim children only read and recite the Quran at a very elementary level. Madaris offer a more organised institutional structure and different academic levels of religious studies. Most Pakistani madaris are affiliated with one of the five Islamic school boards, or Wafaq: three Sunni Madressah Boards (Deobandi, Barelvi and Ahl-e-Hadith), one for the Jamaat-e-Islami and one for Shias. This entire system, mostly belonging to the Sunni sect because Pakistan is predominantly Sunni, is supported largely by the private sector and communities through trusts, endowments, donations and zakat (religious tithes) contributions.
A madressah is mostly registered with the government as a charitable corporate body with acquired tax exemption. Among the Sunnis, the majority are Barelvi, a moderate group who seek to be inclusive of local rituals and customs, the seminaries run by the Jamaat-e-Islami are non-sectarian but politically very active. In the context of extremism, the remaining two streams of madaris are considered most important. The Deobandi school of thought (originating in the Indian town of Deoband, near Delhi), have long sought to purify Islam by rejecting "un-Islamic" accretions to the faith and returning to the models established in the Holy Quran. The Ahle-Hadith (followers of the way of the Prophet) have a similar emphasis on "purifying" the faith, but follow the Salafi fiqh (religious jurisprudence), as opposed to the Hanafi fiqh used by the Deobandis.
No comprehensive and/or credible census of madaris exists in Pakistan. A 2004 Congressional Research Service report, "Terrorism in South Asia," puts the number at 10,000-20,000, the seminaries extending along the borders of Afghanistan, from Karachi to Balochistan and continuing into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA). In April 2002 Pakistan's ministry of religious affairs estimated the number of madaris to be approximately 10,000, with 1.7 million students (including about 448 women-only madaris). The figure is probably closer to 12,000 with about two million students, by conservative estimates.
Seminaries mushroomed during the regime of military ruler Ziaul Haq. His Islamisation policies were meant mainly to establish his own legitimacy. Other factors include the Iranian revolution, the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan and the subsequent Afghan "jihad" against Soviet troops, and Pakistan's involvement in the Afghan war. Students in these madaris also come from other countries, especially Afghanistan.
For the poor, a madressah offers free boarding and food for their children, an opportunity to gain literacy and employment, an irresistible option of hope when compared to the bleak future availing from crumbling or non-existent government-funded secular schools. Successive Pakistani governments have tacitly encouraged this to avoid spending much on education. Only 7,000 Pakistani children attended madaris 30 years ago, compared to the two million today. Functioning as shelters and orphanages for many young children, runaways and refugees where the state apparatus is lacking, madaris have come forward as a parallel system of education that is more viable for the impoverished.
Stretching from Jhang to Bahawalpur, southern Punjab is an educational battleground, dotted with the most aggressive and militant of all madaris, dominated by feudal lords with large landholdings. The cities and towns of this region are teeming with the poor masses, both controlled by jihadi groups. Private citizens from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, thinking they are spreading the message of Islam through petrodollars, fund them generously.
This led to a sustained spurt in Deobandi madaris, not only in the Pakhtun areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border but also in Karachi, as well as inrural Punjab. This money also encouraged a Wahhabi jihad-centred curriculum. Almost the entire Taliban leadership are graduates from the Haqqania, including Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, while the Binori madressah, whose leader Mufti Shamzai was assassinated, was once suspected to be a possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden. Reportedly this is where bin Laden met Mullah Omar to form the Al-Qaeda-Taliban partnership.
A March 2009 report found that about 18 per cent of the madaris were affiliated with sectarian outfits such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Islamist texts advocating violent jihad against other religious sects form part of the curricula in some madaris. Militant pamphlets or magazines circulate in certain madaris, especially those openly aligned with a particular militant group. Research about the connection between Pakistani madaris and Islamic extremism finds a disturbing relationship between religious seminaries and sectarian violence. However, contrary to perceptions, a vast majority of madaris, almost 80 per cent, do not subscribe to this virulent hate. While they may be far from rendering adequate education, it is wrong to condemn them outright as all supporting jihadis.
After the September 11 attacks, madaris were widely associated with violence, even though all the 9/11 perpetrators were university educated, some in the US, and with no connection to any madressah. Pakistan was quickly assumed as being a culprit because Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding in the maintains straddling the Durand Line.
The US government put severe pressure on the Pervez Musharraf government. In 2002 he made key pledges regarding madressah reforms. The government promised:
(1) the registration of all madaris to know which groups were running which religious schools;
(2) regulation of the curriculum so that all madaris would adopt a common government curriculum by the end of 2002;
(3) adoption of measures to stop the use of madaris and mosques as centres for the spread of political and religious inflammatory statements and publications; and
(4) establishment of model madaris providing useful modern education.
Despite all the good talk, none of Musharraf's 2002 promises to reform madaris have been fulfilled, or even come close to it. Only three model madaris have been set up – one each in Karachi, Sukkur and Islamabad, with a total of 300 students. Compared to the estimated two million students in the more than 12,000 madaris in Pakistan this number is ridiculous. The curriculum of these model madrassas includes English, mathematics, computer science, economics, political science, law and Pakistan studies. These institutions were not welcomed by the ulema (religious scholars), because no real effort was made to involve them. Only a very small minority has supported the government in the modernisation of religious institutions.
There is a dire need for the fulfilment of the promises made by the Musharraf regime in 2002. More important is the need to implement alternatives to the madressah, to reduce the dependence of the poor and impoverished on it.
Visiting dozens of religious seminaries across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Alexander Evans found the system "characterised by both orthodoxy and diversity and host to a quiet debate about reform." He has spoken against the notoriety surrounding the madressah, and how wrongly all madressahs are taken to be "laboratories" for creating jihadists. These views are shared by a prominent group of scholars who have challenged the mainstream notion of madressahs as "weapons of mass instruction."
Madressah revisionists like William Dalrymple have added that the majority of madressahs are more "neo-fundamentalist" in their outlook than they are "Salafi jihadist." Their focus, "is more puritanical in nature: ensuring proper Islamic behaviour, like the correct fulfilment of rituals and ablutions, public covering of women, and so on, so to keep society morally intact–rather than participation in violent struggles or revolutionary activities."
The latest Economic Survey of Pakistan says government and private schools number about 224,000 (158,000 primary schools, 413,000 middle schools and 32,400 high schools). Of these 151,000 are for boys and 93,000 for girls), with approximately 1.2 million teachers for 32.3 million students. Approximately 12,000 madressahs "educate" about two million students. Or 3 per cent of school students in 0.5 per cent of available educational institutions. A significant number of 18 per cent madressahs (2,160 madressahs, 360,000 students) being on a jihadist trend, spouting venom and hatred, makes the search for alternative education imperative.
After nationalisation in 1973 and 1974, very good private schools became absolute disasters. Eventually, most were handed back to the private sector in dilapidated states. There are excellent educationists in the public sector, and some very good schools, but these are exceptions, few and far between. For the government to build and run more schools may be counter-productive. Government-run schools do not provide the quality of the private sector, as happens all over the world, including the US and the UK. With the proliferation of private schools (profit centres rather than centres of education), their quality has deteriorated. Teachers' training being virtually non-existent, the real problem area is quality of teachers.
Instead of "reinforcing failure" in attempting to reform the madressah, selected madressahs, those that are keen on reforms, can be affiliated to NGOs which have a proven track record in education, where, apart from religious education, subjects like mathematics, general science, computers and hygiene can be taught by teachers having good credentials, experience and expertise.
Armed with good knowledge about both the divine and the mundane, not weapons and venom, madressah students will have a clear option for admission and placement in higher education institutions or vocational training programmes. Steps should be taken to reform madressah curriculum to highlight pluralistic traditions in Islam in dealing with differences of opinion between faith and traditions.
The more viable and pragmatic alternative is to turn to the private-sector route. Private schools being profit-making centres, why not mobilise NGOs like the Citizens Foundation (TCF) and similar success stories, like CARE, Zindagi Trust, DIL, Punjab Education Foundation and Sindh Education Foundation, for the poor? The TFC, which has "quality education for the less privileged" as its motto, was established in 1995, with just five schools. In 2005 that number went up to 331. By 2010 the number doubled exponentially to 660.
TCF's principles are:
(1) education for the poor will not be poor;
(2) schools will be accessible by walking;
(3) take the children off the streets and into schools;
(4) build self-esteem;
(5) focus on girls' education; and
(6) have trained faculty.
Its impressive achievements are:
(1) 660 school units in 68 locations across Pakistan;
(2) more than 92,000 students with approximately 50 per cent female enrolment; and
(3) 4,800 full female faculty with total employment of more than 7,000.
The quality of education can be ascertained from the fact that 83 per cent secured first division in matriculation.
With children being provided free uniforms and books, it usually takes around ten months to set up a school on the TCF model, costing Rs11.000 ($130) to educate a child for one year (inclusive of uniform and books), Rs1.2 million ($14,500) annually to pay for the running of a primary school and Rs2 million ($24,000) for a secondary school. Even though TCF bears 95 per cent of the fees, it is not charity, which would rob poorer parents of their pride: they must contribute something.
Educating all the two million presently in the madressah system on the TCF model would amount to approximately $250 million a year. Compare that to what the US allocates annually for running the war in Afghanistan and for "Coalition Support Funds" for Pakistan?
Can the government be trusted to spend money responsibly on education? A "Human Resource Survey" was conducted by my company on behalf of the Primary Education Department (PED) of the Balochistan government in October 1997. The survey was meant to
(1) confirm the existence of about 10,000 schools established with UNDP and USAID funding;
(2) validate student enrolment from the school register; and
(3) ascertain the quality of staff members.
It found 15-20 per cent of the schools being used for other purposes--such as "autaqs" (guest houses) for the waderas. We could not find almost 1,000 (10 per cent) of the schools supposedly in existence, particular in the Bugti and Marri areas.
Nawab Akbar Bugti was furious at the adverse findings. He instructed his son, the late Saleem Bugti, the minister of education in the provincial government, to withhold payment for our services. Feudal lords, however "democratic" their rhetoric and posturing, seldom like their subjects to get an education that can eventually challenge their despotism.
George Soros reportedly offered up to $100 million to Pervez Musharraf during the WEF Annual Summit at Davos in 2006, provided something concrete could be done to reform the madressahs and/or provide alternative education. Unfortunately, donors, on the one hand, are hostages to the bureaucracies they create to ensure the largesse they dole out is being well spent, and, on the other, to governments paying lip-service to education. Nothing happened!
The way forward is to "reinforce success" and support NGOs like TCF, Zindagi Trust and DIL, with matching grants, allowing them to concentrate on quality education and the mechanism to sustain it. Instead of frittering away enormous sums in dubious education projects, the government, aid-giving agencies and philanthropists must look seriously at credible NGOs and route funds into transparent and accountable projects without the bureaucratic hassle that delays payments and/or siphons off significant parts of the intended money.
Grants and loans are available from the Islamic Development Bank, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Union, UNICEF, UNESCO, the UNDP, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the ILO, the WEP, USAID, CIDA of Canada, the British DFID, the German GTZ, Japan's JICA, NORAD of Norway and AUSAID of Australia. The funds allocated could be spent judiciously if an effective monitoring mechanism is set up. The bottom line is: put the money into a trusted mechanism with a track record of delivering the goods.
For the madressah system to be tackled positively, the challenge before donors is to look at models like TCF as an alternative.
*This is a two-part article on the madressah system.
(The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)