Pakistan mulls tighter controls on madrassas

The Pakistani government is proposing reform of the nation’s madrassas, which are accused of fostering terrorism.

Cleric Abdul Aziz (centre) insists Pakistan's government must rule in line with Islamic teachings [AFP/Getty Images]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the seminary library, just a stone’s throw away from the Pakistani parliament, cleric Abdul Aziz speaks with the conviction of one who feels vindicated by history.

In 2007, Aziz and his brother Abdul Rashid led a band of students from the Jamia Hafsa seminary and others in a campaign of moral policing in Pakistan’s capital – which resulted in them being charged with kidnapping, assault and abuse. The standoff with authorities also involved the issuing of several fatwas – religious edicts – against the military campaign targeting armed groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), declaring any soldiers taking part to be “non-Muslim”.

That confrontation led to a military operation, during which the seminary and adjacent Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) were besieged for seven days, involving almost daily clashes between security forces and Aziz and Rashid’s followers, who also launched raids on nearby government buildings.

When the dust settled, more than 60 people had been killed on both sides. Rashid was among the dead and Aziz was arrested while trying to escape the seminary disguised in a burqa.

Today, the cleric has been acquitted of all legal charges against him, including murder, incitement and kidnapping. He has resumed his position as head of the Lal Masjid and a network of 27 seminaries across Punjab province. These provide free education and accommodation to more than 5,000 students, who are given religious instruction alongside courses in non-religious subjects.

Little has changed for Aziz, who was quick to point out to Al Jazeera that the seminary library had recently been inaugurated in “honour” of Osama bin Laden, whom he called a “martyr” and a “hero of Islam”.

Pakistan madrassa blacklisted by US Treasury

“I think that there is no state in Pakistan,” Aziz said. “There is the law of the jungle here. If the law of the jungle can be called a state, then OK, there is a state… What is a state? What responsibilities of the state [is the government] fulfilling? They are here to steal, for corruption, to be cruel to the people. Democracy in this country is a method of stealing.”

Asked whether he would  today condone the Jamia Hafsa students’ acts of kidnapping, arson and moral policing in 2007, his reply was unequivocal: “Absolutely.”

Describing such vigilante policing as “the command of sharia“, Aziz said religious law dictates “that where you see someone violating sharia, you must stop them. 

Even at gunpoint?

“If there is no other way… if things are at that ultimate point, then yes, that will also be likely.”

Lack of oversight

The government may have had clerics such as Aziz in mind when its newly formulated National Internal Security Policy (NISP) identified seminaries, or madrassas, as being potential security threats because of their ability to “spread extremism”.

It’s policy document, a copy of which was seen by Al Jazeera, refers to “troublesome aspects of these madrassas, which impinge on national internal security, include financing from unidentified sources; publication and distribution of hate material”. While careful to point out that “not all madrassas are a problem,” the report suggests that some have “taken a dangerous turn in cultivating non-tolerant and violent religious attitudes”. 

The report states that certain seminaries spread “radicalisation literature” and preach “complete rejection of other beliefs”, while engaging in “sectarian indoctrination”. It also asserts that “a large number of terrorists either are, or have been students of madrassas where they were brainwashed to take up arms against the state”. It calls for an overhaul of the country’s seminary education system, integrating it with the national educational system by “supporting their administration, financial audit and curriculum accreditation”.

Abdul Aziz addresses supporters inside the Red Mosque during Friday prayers in Islamabad in April 2009 [AP]

More than 22,000 seminaries are registered across Pakistan, accounting for about 200,000 full-time students, or 1.5 million students including those enrolled part-time. These institutions are run by five major seminary boards, known as wifaqs, with little or no oversight by the government.

The NISP’s recommendations have been seconded by Pakistan’s parliament, but questions have been raised over the need for systematic reform, instead of simply using existing law to tackle seminaries known to preach radical ideologies.

“Can the government open such a Pandora’s box of talking about reform in the private and public education sectors as well?” asked Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), who has extensively researched seminaries.

“If some madrassa teachers or students are involved [in terrorism], the law enforcement agencies have records of the madrassas, they know what they are doing, then they can increase the surveillance. And if they found some suspicious activity, then they can enforce the [existing] law.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior police officer said security agencies had identified two radical seminaries supporting armed groups, but action wasn’t taken “due to a lack of aggressive political will”.

“There is ambiguity, I think, even in the internal security document. They built a case about madrassas and security, but when they come to regulations, they suggest just mainstreaming of madrassas and curriculum reform,” said Rana.

‘Coercive environment’

Most seminaries in Pakistan teach the Dars-e-Nizami system, an eight-year course including Arabic, Islamic jurisprudence and the interpretation of the Quran. The system’s curriculum is supplemented with other courses, some with overtly sectarian leanings – unsurprising, given that the wifaqs are largely divided by sect and ideology.

The government has destroyed all public schools... If you cannot run the government schools, then how can you run the seminaries?

by - Akram Khan Durrani, senior lawmaker

Syed Muhammad Ali, a development anthropologist at Canada’s McGill University, has researched policy reform in the seminary sector. He said the curriculum at such schools mean that pedagogy is “creating a larger coercive environment, which can exacerbate myopic mindsets”.

Ali criticised outside attempts to reform seminaries as being short-sighted, focusing on introducing subjects such as maths and science, but not addressing the pedagogical issues at play. He suggested the only way to tackle those ideological issues is to find alternate forms of Islamic knowledge that place more focus on critical-thinking skills.

“You give some basic math or computer skills, it does nothing to lessen that myopia,” he says. “You have to address that myopia by going into the [Islamic] tradition.”

That “myopia”, and the solidifying of sectarian identities under the wifaqs, can breed sectarian tension. More than 3,600 people have been killed in sectarian violence in Pakistan since 2002 – including 722 deaths last year.

The issue of jihad

Opposition to reform has come not just from the madrassas themselves, but from religious political parties, which contend the government has no business interfering with religious education.

“The government has destroyed all public schools… If you cannot run the government schools, then how can you run the seminaries?” asked Akram Khan Durrani, a senior lawmaker who resigned his cabinet position over the issue, and whose JUI-F party runs a network of seminaries across Pakistan.

Pakistani men pray at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque [AP]

“These institutions are running on their own effort, so many scholars are created by them. If there is any discussion to be had, the doors to discussion are open.”

He added the government was bowing to “international pressure” to introduce more oversight.

But the current lack of oversight has security ramifications. According to a police report viewed by Al Jazeera, two seminaries located in Islamabad have been identified as working “for the success of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan operations… and providing support for their operations in Islamabad and Rawalpindi”, as well as providing “jihadi training”.

These seminaries are ready to be used as support bases for potential TTP attacks in the Pakistani capital, in the event of a military operation against the group.

Clerics such as Abdul Aziz, who was briefly part of the TTP’s negotiating team in talks with the government, continue to expand their networks. For him, the issue of madrassa reform comes down to a debate over whether armed jihad – a “religious obligation” that he defends – is taught in these seminaries.

“The government should come in line with the Quran and sunnah. This present-day thought of giving the state the status of God: We cannot do that, and neither will we.”

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera