Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi
TODAY, the task of curbing centrifugal or extremist religious orientations by mainstreaming our religious alma mater remains one of the daunting challenges faced by the government of Pakistan. Does foreign funding alter the orientations of religious culture and norms around pluralism— inclusivity in significant ways, or is all politics—and all religion—fundamentally local? Traditionally arguing, the experts’ view advocates that the geopolitics of religious soft power underpins the global impact of religious propagation activities. In this contest, the influence of this phenomenon over our religious institutes cannot be ignored. Though being an ideological Islamic state, the creation of Pakistan owes its intrinsic affiliation or association with the ideology of Islam, yet it is unfair and unjustified to attribute the ills of fundamentalism with the label of Islam. And yet, by all means, while the government is committed to modernizing these religious missionaries, the importance of religious education cannot be undermined.
It goes without saying the Western drive of political instrumentalization-cum-exploitation of Islam has sensitively created the mounting pressures for us to address the issue of the religious schools, which in the eye of the global community are the cradles of extremism and radicalism. Unfortunately, the means and methods of education used by the madaris are completely outdated. Polarization and narrow mindedness are the end results of this parochial unmodern teaching. Though admittedly, modernizing madrasa education is a complex issue in Pakistan, it is not an impossible mission for a deeply conservative Muslim nation where religious schools are often blamed by the West, for fostering radicalization, a charge sheet given by the Western agencies.
According to a reliable estimate, more than 15,000 such Muslim religious schools across Pakistan educate more than 1 million students, only a small number of madaris are involved in indoctrination, recruitment and training of students for a violent or radical role. Bringing all madaris into the mainstream of Pakistani society with mandatory registration and course offerings in mathematics, science and business studies could go a long way toward providing tangible alternatives for future employment and halting the evil temptation to militancy. Madaris were established to provide learning skills and knowledge to be useful for the employment of the state as well as the religious establishment in pre-British India. In the post-colonial phase, however, the madrassa became synonymous for producing the Islamic clergy. Religious education in Pakistan maintains an essential position in the general educational system of the nation. The number of students registered in programs involving religious education in colleges and higher education institutes as well as customary religious education organizations such as madrasas is much higher than the number of students in any other area.
Students graduating from various programmes differ in skills that include presentation, communication and cultural orientation. The foreign or the Western view is that the curriculum of these religious seminaries endorse Islamic rituals in Pakistan and considers it as being threatening to the judicial faith and belief system in other divisions of the Muslim population. Therefore, many international state governments argued that there should be isolation between the funding to endow charitable projects, development of infrastructure of seminaries, and curriculum material. Generally, Madaris in Pakistan are considered as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide students with Islamic education along with the free boarding and lodging facilities, in order to educate the segment of society based on poor people. These institutions follow Islamic curriculum designed especially for this purpose. Along with the other educational system in the country, religious education is also reckoned as a vital part of the educational system.
Apparently, there seems a divisive educational stratification in Pakistan characterized by three parallel education systems—the government-funded schools; private schools; and Islamic religious schools. Both private and public schools teach Islamic subjects as a substantial part of their curriculum, while madaris offer absolutely religious training for the students who have a keen interest in specializing in religious education. In these conditions, regardless of the possibility that madaris are opposed by a society, numerous among the masses keep on supporting them. Unfortunately, the task of its legislative issues since the independence remain unresolved because of the self-interests driven policies in Pakistani ruling communities.
Unfortunately, the graduates from these madaris are not able to participate in the economic activities of the country due to their decrepit studies. However, some of them take to join the professions of teaching in public schools, business and agriculture. The government is making efforts to integrate madrassa education with the formal public education system in order to enable madaris to play a more visible and active role in national and economic development. The Government of Pakistan hopes that the integration of two systems would be a major step for improvement in the quality of education – a major factor responsible for socio-economic uplift of the society. Both religious and formal education in madaris should be regularly implemented. Also, vocational training should also be included in madaris’ curriculum.
In this era of innovation information, it is the vision of the government to maximise the opportunities in digital space and create enabling environment for Pakistani youths to equip them with technological know-how and President Arif Alvi recently said. The President vowed the Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence and Computing was one of the programmes meant for training one million youths in the field of information technology. He asked foreigners, especially Saudis, to explore the possibility of making joint ventures and collaboration with the relevant Pakistani entities. The role of the community-based organisations (CBOs) must be enhanced and encouraged in this regard. Yet foolproof coordination between Madaris administration, the Islamic Ideological Council and the Federal Reforms Task Force on Education is necessary to implement the strategy of enlightened moderation required to streamline the madaris into liberal-based education through forging a balance between Sufi Islam and orthodox Islam.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum- analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.