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Pakistan madrassa reforms in tatters

Pakistan has virtually shelved a US-aided, multi-million-dollar plan to reform seminaries considered nurseries of jihad, faced with uncooperative Islamists, as the military cracks down on the Taliban.

world Updated: Jul 16, 2009 11:25 IST

Pakistan has virtually shelved a US-aided, multi-million-dollar plan to reform seminaries considered nurseries of jihad, faced with uncooperative Islamists, as the military cracks down on the Taliban.

The government, allied to then US president George W. Bush's "war on terror," initiated the project in 2002 in a bid to introduce a more secular curriculum to madrassas, sensing a homegrown threat from extremism.

It was billed as a policy U-turn after military ruler General Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s turned many seminaries into breeding grounds for jihad to help the United States raise a fighting force against Soviet invaders in Afghanistan.

The 2002 project sought to introduce computer skills, science, social studies and English into the overwhelmingly religious curriculum at thousands of seminaries or madrassas catering to the sons of the poor and conservative.

"We had a huge budget of 5,759 million rupees (71 million US dollars) to provide seminary students with formal education but we could not utilise it," education ministry spokesman Atiq-ur-Rehman told AFP.

"The interior ministry held talks with various madrassas... but many of them refused to accept government intervention," said Mufti Gulzar Ahmed Naimi, a senior official in the mainstream Sunni clerics alliance, Jamat Ahl-e-Sunnat. As a result, the government failed to meet its target of reforming 8,000 religious schools within five years.

"We reached 507 seminaries only, spending 333 million rupees and the rest of the (money) -- 5,426 million has lapsed," Rehman said.

According to government records, there are at least 15,148 seminaries in Pakistan with more than two million students, around five per cent of the 34 million children in formal education.

But officials suspect thousands more go unregistered, providing sons of Pakistan's poverty-stricken majority the only affordable education.

The majority get their funds from local Muslim businessmen and traders, who believe donations to mosques and seminaries are a fast-ticket to paradise, along with Islamic foundations, charities and Pakistanis living abroad.

The education ministry says it introduced the "latest computer technology" to 30 madrassas and paid the salaries of 950 teachers on a three-year scheme.

"We will pay these teachers until June 30 in 2010 and then this project will be closed because no more madrassas are being included in the reform project," said the education ministry spokesman.

Teachers who participated in the scheme are desperately worried about the future of their pupils if their new lessons are scrapped.

Israr Ahmed is studying for a masters in computer engineering. He hails from a moderate family on the outskirts of the capital Islamabad and teaches students at Naimi's madrassa in his free time.

"This programme must be continued. The madrassa students are getting real benefits out of it and are entering the field of formal education and computer technology," Ahmed said.

He comes from Pakistan's educated middle class. His father has a university degree in English and lectures at a state-owned college. His sister finished secondary school and will go to college.

"I'm paid 3,000 rupees by the government for this job. My contract ends on June 30 in 2010 but I plan to continue this duty. This is really national service," Ahmed said.

Besides, the salary is paltry. A domestic servant can earn more money, but his reward is children who are eager to learn and dream of better futures.

"I'm happy to learn English and Mathematics. I can now do a job in formal organisations after completing my studies," said Abdul Habib, a fourth-grade student at Jamia Masjid Naimia.

In the well-off Satellite Town in Islamabad's twin city of Rawalpindi, along the busy Murree road, Syed Haseen-ud-din Shah remembers one of his students who switched from the Koran to computer science and ended up with a degree.

"There are so many students following him who regularly attend computer classes in the madrassa," said Shah, head of Madrassa Riaz-ul-Ulum.

"There are 650 students in my madrassa and most of them are inclined to formal education, but I am unable to facilitate that without government support."

Some analysts say Pakistan's latest military onslaught against the Taliban, which appears to be making headway, could improve prospects for reviving plans to reshape the role of seminaries.

"Any effort by the government at this point will show they are determined to curb terrorism by all ways and means," defence analyst Talat Masood told AFP, calling on Islamabad to relaunch the program and provide free education.

"This would help poor parents who send their children to madrassas because of free education and board," he said.