Monday, February 11, 2008

Pakistan's Madrassas, Part 1

We begin with a quote from an article at Asia Times Online entitled Slow learning curve at Pakistan's madrassas by Ron Synovitz, Mar 10, 2004; the entire article is reviewed, with my comments interspersed:

When Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf announced plans to reform the country's 10,000 madrassas almost two years ago, he said the move was necessary because some of the private Islamic schools had become breeding grounds for "intolerance and hatred".

Reports now suggest, however, that there have been few changes at the most radical madrassas, the religious schools that spawned Afghanistan's Taliban movement.

To be fair, International Crisis Group terrorism expert Najum Mushtaq says it is wrong to label Pakistan's entire madrassa sector as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. "We should make no generalizations about madrassas," he said. "Madrassas are of so many kinds. To associate militancy with madrassas is only to avoid the real issue, which is that the Pakistani state has been promoting religious extremism itself - initially with the help of the West [to stop the spread of communism from Afghanistan during the 1980s], and then on its own as a tool of Pakistan's military strategy and defense strategy. Madrassas were, at best, a pawn in the game of religious extremism. And [even] that [refers] to a very small section of madrassas."

This is quality: "the real issue, which is that the Pakistani state has been promoting religious extremism itself".

This post begins a series in which we examine Pakistan's madrassas and the role they play in the spread of religious militancy and Islamic terrorism.

Continuing with the article:

Pakistan's government last month approved more than US$100 million for madrassas participating in the modernization program. About 80 percent of an estimated 10,000 madrassas are to receive those funds - meaning 20 percent of the madrassas have not met Islamabad's reform criteria. According to a World Bank study, that is about the same number of madrassas that were sending their students to camps for military training when Musharraf's reform program was launched.

In other words, nothing much had changed as of 2004.

Notice the comment about "madrassas ... sending their students to camps for military training".

A recent report in Britain's Daily Telegraph has drawn attention to the situation by focusing on the Dar ul-Uloom Islamia madrassa in the town of Charsadda. Situated in the remote mountains near the border with Afghanistan, the school instructed future leaders in Afghanistan's Taliban regime, such as commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is high on the United States' most-wanted list in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the Taliban movement began with students who attended the religious schools in Pakistan. A recent European Union report says that as many as 30 percent of the Taliban's fighters attended madrassas such as Dar ul-Uloom Islamia.

We are looking at the origins of the Taliban as seen in US Government cable traffic in our series entitled Genesis.

Dar ul-Uloom leader Maulana Gouhar Shah admitted that his madrassa sent volunteers to fight on the side of the Taliban against US forces in Afghanistan in late 2001. Shah said his students and staff are "still weeping" because of the collapse of the Taliban. Shah, a religious conservative who also is a member of Pakistan's parliament, acknowledged that his madrassa had not changed its fundamentalist program since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States.

A member of Pakistan's parliament was "'still weeping' because of the collapse of the Taliban". I wonder if this is the same Maulana Gohar Shah who was replaced by Mufti Abdullah Shah in the NA-7 constituency in Charsadda District last November? (Note: Charsadda District is in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, just north of Peshawar District, which is along the main highway to Jalalabad and on to Kabul through the Khyber Pass.)

Maulana Gohar Shah is now a former legislator, but remains active in Pakistani politics. He has recently spoken out against a bill that would protect women's rights in Pakistan -- not because he is against protecting women's rights, but because he believes the bill is flawed, and because he believes Islam already protects women's rights. I wonder about that.

Returning to our article:

Supporters of the madrassa system say that most are charitable religious schools that have helped raise the literacy rate in Pakistan. Millions of poor Pakistanis and refugees from Afghanistan never would have had access to an education if the madrassas did not exist. But Musharraf says children who get free religious schooling at the madrassas often grow up with few skills beyond the ability to lead prayers at a mosque.

That is a significant point about what the graduates of these schools are qualified to do.

Musharraf's reform scheme calls for modern disciplines such as English, science, mathematics, economics, and even computer science. The plan aims to curtail the enrollment of foreign students and to block funding - both from Islamabad and from abroad - for madrassas that fail to register and adhere to the modern curriculum. The scheme also calls for madrassas to stop sending students to military training camps.

Recall from above the comment about "madrassas ... sending their students to camps for military training".

Three "model" madrassas were established in Pakistan last year using government funds. But so far the most radical madrassas appear to be rejecting the example. Instead, they continue to teach from a medieval syllabus that rejects "Western science" as un-Islamic.

This is quite significant, as this system not only does not produce proficient scientists and technicians, but even discourages such proficiency as un-Islamic.

Technological progress -- for example, the development of nuclear weapons -- comes despite this system of Islamic schools. Indeed, as we have seen in our Islamic Bomb series, such progress has come in Pakistan due, in large part, to proliferation from China which, in turn, came in large part due to corruption in the United States. Shut off the spigot of proliferation from the US, and you impede the development of nuclear technology in the Islamic world.

Noteworthy, however, is that the graduates of these schools, while unlikely to engineer nuclear weapons, can gain political power and perhaps make the use of nuclear weapons more likely, if such weapons can be obtained or produced.

Critics note that the reform plan allows the current madrassa managers and teachers to retain their posts. Crucially, the program is not compulsory. And some conservative Islamist groups continue to oppose government interference in the curriculum.

Shortly after Musharraf approved the plan, the US-based Center for Contemporary Conflict said it would take years for any positive effects to be seen.

True -- but also a convenient smokescreen for less-than-enthusiastic implementation.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, director of the Transnational Threats Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the shortsighted policies of the US during the 1980s led to a proliferation of madrassas in Pakistan. The legacy of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan is "all the things that [the United States] had set up to fight the Soviets - such as the encouragement to Islamist fundamentalists to set up madrassas along that [Pakistan-Afghanistan] border - not so much to be emulated nationwide, but to set up an ideological barrier against what was feared to be the penetration of communist ideology into Pakistan", de Borchgrave said.

It is interesting how the madrassas were set up in the more rural areas along the border with Afghanistan -- as the article explains, as "an ideological barrier".

If you review the history of the Cold War in South Asia, I would not fault you for coming to the conclusion that Pakistan was more anti-communist than the United States. Pakistan's goals included not just the establishment of an Islamic republic in Afghanistan, but of Islamic republics in Soviet Central Asia, as well: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- and indeed the tide has turned somewhat in that direction.

Unlike Mushtaq, de Borchgrave considers Pakistan's madrassa sector, as a whole, to be a potential source of Islamic extremism. "To this very day now, you have madrassas that have spread all over Pakistan which were originally encouraged by the United States and Saudi Arabia," he said. "They are churning out hundreds of thousands of kids - about an estimated 700,000 this year from about 10,000 madrassas - all still paid for by the Wahhabi clergy in Saudi Arabia to the tune of about $300 million a year. And that is the clear and present danger. Not Iraq. Iraq was a clear and distant danger."

And wherever the Desert Kingdom's petrodollars go, terrorism is sure to be found. Despite that, Bush launched an invasion of a country with a secular government, Iraq; headed by a brutal dictator, to be sure, but the same brutal dictator we supported when faced with Iran's Islamic fundamentalism, and a brutal dictator who, for his secularism, was on the hit-list of the Wahhabi extremists.

Iran's Shi'ism will only spread so far in Central and South Asia -- only Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan have significant numbers of shi'ites. But, Saudi Arabia's well-funded Wahhabism, based in Sunnism, is far more palatable not just in Asia and the Middle East, but among Muslims worldwide.

We'll know Bush is serious about terrorism when he confronts Riyadh, and compels the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to do something about tolerance of non-Wahhabi sects; they don't even have to tolerate Christianity, the way we tolerate Islam -- all they need to do for starters is tolerate people who don't make takfir out of their fellow Muslims. Shall we hold our breath waiting?

Other recent international studies are critical of madrassas that focus solely on Islamic teachings. Some madrassas use texts from the 11th century to teach medicine and others teach mathematics based only on the works of the ancient Greeks more than 2,300 years ago.

They'll have a hard time developing nuclear weapons with that curriculum!

Pakistani Education Minister Zobaida Jalal told BBC World recently that it is "the wrong perception" all over the world that madrassas are responsible for breeding fanatics and extremists in Pakistan. "Let me tell you that's the wrong perception. The madrassas don't breed any kind of extremists in the country. Actually, it's once these children get out of madrassas. It's organizations, certain organizations, which have recruited them," Zobaida said.

However, she admitted that the government was trying to bring madrassas into the mainstream. "The major program that the government has put into place ... we are going to implement. We are devolving back to the provinces. Eight thousand madrassas in the country have been targeted over the next three years for this [financial] support. We are now going to bring them into the mainstream of education."

"'Let me tell you that's the wrong perception. The madrassas don't breed any kind of extremists in the country. Actually, it's once these children get out of madrassas. It's organizations, certain organizations, which have recruited them,' Zobaida said."

Remember from earlier the quotes:

1) "the real issue, which is that the Pakistani state has been promoting religious extremism itself"

2) "madrassas ... sending their students to camps for military training"

Stay tuned, as we continue in the Genesis series to explore the origins of the Taliban, and as we continue in this series to consider Pakistan's madrassas.

No comments: