Religious schools, or madrassas, are often portrayed in the media as training grounds for extremists. But some say the institutions, if effectively regulated, could be the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and boosting literacy in underdeveloped countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
While some madrassas can offer opportunities to poorer students, others struggle to offer a decent standard of education.
Accordingly, Pakistan's government recently announced plans to bring madrassas under the umbrella of the national education system as part of its first National Internal Security Policy aimed at quelling extremism in the country - which is often attributed to indoctrination at poorly run madrassas.
"A large number of terrorists either are or have been students of madrassas where they were brainwashed to take up arms against the state," said the document, which was presented to parliament by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.
A conservative estimate puts the number of madrassas in Pakistan at about 20,000 schools, serving between two and three million pupils.
Azhar Hussain, founder and president of the Peace and Education Foundation (PEF) in Pakistan , told Al Jazeera that the Pakistani government had previously tried to bring the madrassas under its control and failed. "It is a necessary move by the government, but they tried this before and miserably failed," he said. "[Madrassas] do not properly equip students to find jobs in the private sector or to address contemporary problems. Consequently, some opt to become insurgents in order to keep bread on their tables."
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Hussain said efforts to include contemporary subjects in madrassas' curricula met stiff resistance from madrassa boards and religious leaders. "In the past 10 years, though, there has been a lot of progress. We [ICRD] have been working with about 4,000 madrassa teachers and they themselves are now asking to be modernised."
Lack of tolerance
The tussle over madrassas in Pakistan is part of a larger religious debate in the country. Connecting the Dots: Education and Religious Discrimination in Pakistan, a 2011 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) co-authored by Hussain, describes a lack of tolerance for religious minorities in both public schools and madrassas.
"Public school textbooks used by all children often were found to have a strong Islamic orientation, while Pakistan's religious minorities were either referenced derogatorily or omitted all together," said USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo in the report's opening letter.
The report added that "many students expressed discomfort or disdain for the practices of other traditions. A large portion of public school students could not correctly identify religious minorities as citizens". It also highlighted the fact that any effort to fight religious discrimination in Pakistan would likely face strong opposition.
With the modernisation of the curriculum, these pupils could choose to go to a secular college, an option not currently available because of their lack of math, science, and English language education.
"The issue is that the public schools, really, are a shambles. This means that some madrassas are saying, 'Why do you want us to be more like them?' and they have a point," said Hussain. "About 88 percent of madrassa students are from poor families and attend because they receive free room and board in addition to some religious education. What we find at the moment is that madrassa pupils are isolated and insulated."
In neighbouring Afghanistan, the draw of free board and education also draws poorer families towards madrassas, which, critics say, often offer little in the way of preparing children for a modern job market.
The education system also struggles with pressure from extreme religious groups and the deep-seated conservatism of some areas, specifically when it comes to female education.
Claudio Franco, the author of The Ongoing Battle for Education; Uprisings, Negotiations and Taleban Tactics, said ethnic Pashtun parts of Afghanistan tend to be especially conservative when it comes to education.
"[In the Pashtun belt in particular] there have been attempts by the Taliban to curtail or pre-empt girls' education, and these attempts have been largely successful. The local populace is very often sympathetic towards this kind of stance, simply because of an instinctive, well-rooted conservatism," he said. "As a consequence, there have been attacks on girls travelling to and from school, or on teachers and/or administrators who did not comply with this ban."
Franco said that objections to female education were being used as a means of questioning the entire idea of Western education. "A compromise between a modern education and the insurgents' stances is the only viable option to provide Afghanistan with an effective education system. Aiming for a Westernised system would probably be a waste of time," he said.
Borhan Osman, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said there was a dichotomy between "modern" and more traditional schools that needed to be addressed. "There is a serious need for reforming the madrassa education system. Turning a blind eye to the many problems in the religious education will only deepen the gap between the systems. The influence of religion or religious groups on education is now not that strong as during the Taliban era or the Mujahideen, but religion is still heavily present in the Afghan educational landscape."
He added that both modern schools and madrassas have failings. "Modern schools are fairly good in equipping children with the basic skills needed for a job or business, although they are far from sufficient. Religious schools fare much worse... With more awareness now, I think poor families increasingly prefer to send their children to modern schools instead of madrassas since they seek a better chance of jobs for their children."
'Absence of oversight'
In contrast to the struggles of Afghanistan to reconcile women, religion, and education, Bangladesh took steps to improve the education of girls - by reaching out to madrassas for help. This led to an increase in literacy, and by 2011 girls had a higher literacy rate than boys in the country.
"The government started to encourage madrassas to admit girls, and so what we had was a system that had traditionally avoided admitting girls welcoming them equally to boys," said M Niaz Asadullah, professor of development economics at the University of Malaya, who has described the benefits that could come from the "feminisation" of the madrassa system, such as higher levels of female employment.
Going to an unrecognised madrassa is not going to make you a doctor or a lawyer, but people know that already.
This stands in stark contrast to the situation in Afghanistan, where many rural girls struggle to be educated beyond the sixth grade.
Yet Bangladesh is also home to many unrecognised madrassas - which continue to exist, according to Asadullah, because the government has failed to provide quality religious education. Recent figures place the number of recognised madrassas at 16,000, serving about 5.5 million pupils.
The number of unrecognised madrassas stands at roughly 10,000, although accurate analysis is difficult.
Unrecognised madrassas do not take any money from the government, relying instead on charitable donations, and do not provide the same amount of secular studies. "In the case of Bangladesh, education is free, but you may still have to bribe to get enrolled. Teachers also remain absent. Madrassas offer a cheaper and not-so-inferior alternative," Asadullah said.
But, he added, "the 'unrecognised' status makes them vulnerable to abuse. Given the religious label and absence of oversight, it's true that anti-social activities have been carried out in the name of running a madrassa, but I have not seen any evidence suggesting that this is systematic. Going to an unrecognised madrassa is not going to make you a doctor or a lawyer, but people know that already."
A traditional view of madrassas in South Asia is that they are the last refuge of the poor to obtain an education. Yet Asadullah told Al Jazeera that while economic factors did come in to play, it was not the only consideration in Bangladesh. "Evidence also indicates that households diversify by sending one child to school and another to a madrassa," he said.
"There is a poverty connection in both Bangladesh and Indonesia, and it's stronger when it comes to unrecognised madrassa education. Religious views matter, but economic factors dominate. Provide a good school irrespective of its faith orientation, [and parents would] enrol kids."
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Correction: A previous version of this article described Azhar Hussain as being part of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. This is no longer the case.