Some retired generals regularly appearing on TV in Pakistan — the army chief is on record saying they are not briefed by the army — have been recommending the “mainstreaming” of religious elements, dubbed “terrorist” at the UN. They presume that the “mainstream” is “normal” and “harmless”. Some mainstreaming was visible during the last election which brought Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf to office. The “parties” fronting such madrassas, as the terrorist-declared Lashkar-e-Taiba, did rather well by cutting into the vote bank of the rightwing Pakistan Muslim League, which lost the election and was pilloried for “corruption”.
Notwithstanding the FATF ban on some madrassa-based non-state actors, the madrassa is powerful in Pakistan. Because of the decades of “jihad” in Afghanistan, they became well-funded because their graduates brought home “power” along with the money from “outside”. One madrassa became so powerful that it took on the state, General Pervez Musharraf in fact. He took on the Lal Masjid madrassa of Islamabad which was visited often by “messengers” from the army of Osama bin Laden.
In 2007, after Lal Masjid attacked massage parlours in Islamabad for being “un-Islamic”, Musharraf decided to “correct” the madrassa, only to have his commandos killed by the “mujahideen”. His Operation Silence destroyed the seminary, killed the brother of Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head of the madrassa, while the “Islamised” people of Islamabad disliked the Operation. The commando unit that carried out the operation was attacked by a suicide-bomber at its Haripur headquarters, killing 15 soldiers. Al Qaeda declared the foundation of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in response to Operation Silence.
The madrassa was actually “mainstream”; General Musharraf and his army were not. After nearly a decade, Musharraf went into exile while Maulana Abdul Aziz stayed put, amply rewarded by a Supreme Court compensatory verdict. In 2017, on the eve of the election that was to replace the government of Nawaz Sharif, Abdul Aziz threatened to observe the Martyrs’ Day for “900 innocent girl seminarians” killed by Musharraf. Backed by the Taliban, he was the most powerful person in Pakistan. When Islamabad tried to talk “peace” with the Taliban, the latter chose Maulana Abdul Aziz and Imran Khan as their “vakils” (lawyers).
Azmat Abbas in his book, Madrassa Mirage: A Contemporary History of Islamic Schools in Pakistan says the 303,446 schools that cater to 1.7 million children are taught by teachers who can hardly impart the kind of education the children coming from poor homes need. The teachers simply reinforce the religious content prescribed in the provinces. This is the “mainstream” that Pakistan thinks is “safe”.
According to Abbas, the madrassas are getting ready to “mainstream” Pakistan instead in the ways of extremist faith. After “mainstreaming” was suggested on TV, the madrassas responded by a remarkable proliferation. It is not easy to set up a functioning madrassa with facilities that state schools can only dream of. Abbas writes: “Recent statistics show that the number of madrassas was less than 14,000 in 2013-14. By the end of 2016, however, they increased to 32,272, marking a growth of over 50 per cent.”
One can’t ignore the fact that most of the organisations declared terrorist abroad or seen as violent by Pakistanis are madrassa-based. This pattern has grown out of the practice of using “non-state actors” by the state. “Given the information available,” Abbas argues, “most of the militant sectarian and jihadi organisations either originated at madarassas or were established by those who studied at Islamic religious schools. For instance, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqa-e-Jafaria was formed by Mufti Jafar Hussain, a student of Madaris in Lucknow and Hauza Imam-e-Najaf, Iraq; Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, a student of Darul Ulum Eidgah Kabirwala, established the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan; Maulana Masood Azhar, a student of Jamia Ulum Al-Islamia, Banuri Town, Karachi, established the Jaish-e-Muhammad; Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, a student of Jamia Ulum Al-Islamia, Banuri Town, Karachi, established Harkatul Mujahideen; Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a graduate of Jamia Ulum Al-Islamia, Banuri Town, Karachi, founded Harkatul Mujahideen, and later Harkat-e-Jihad-e-Islami and so on.”
In Pakistan, early education is heavily ideological. Scholars like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi who recommend that early education be non-ideological can no longer live in the country. Literacy, therefore, has become toxic, broken in part only if you send your children to an English-medium school. But under the current government, this stream of education is under threat. English-medium schools are seen as creating “two nations” instead of the “single” one desired by their reading of the constitution. A Supreme Court chief justice, now thankfully retired, took punitive action against them — before going to England to see his son being educated in a university which is “English-medium”.
The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan