Pakistan’s attempts at Madrassa reform have largely ended in failure, more so because of the half-hearted attempts of the government and less because of resistance from religious quarters.
One can gauge how serious former President Pervez Musharraf was in reforming madrassas, also said to be the incubators for extremists, from the fact that the person overseeing the process was Ejaz-ul Haq, the son of former dictator General Ziaul Haq.
This military strongman was credited with helping set up these madrassas in the first place.
Ejazul Haq was the religious affairs minister in Musharraf’s government.
Once again there is talk of madrassa reform, especially in the South Punjab area, from where it is believed that the latest wave of extremists are being produced.
The President Asif Ali Zardari government has come to agreement with various religious education boards, who have agreed to allow revision of their syllabus in exchange for financial help.
It is a difficult path for Zardari to tread. This is because most of the more rabid religious organisations and extremist groups have political alliances with the PML-N party headed by Nawaz Sharif.
This week it was revealed the the Punjab government, which is a PML-N government, gave a grant of Rs 82 million for schools run by the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), after it was banned.
PPP politician Sherry Rehman comments “giving a grant to the JuD tells us there are elements within the Punjab government that are still not committed to the idea that outfits like the LeT and the JuD must be rooted out.”
The on-ground situation in South Punjab reveals that there has been a mushroom growth of madrassas in the past couple of years. Many of these are affiliated with extremist organisations.
“The numbers are sizeable. And they take advantage of the poverty of this region to recruit young men who are willing to take on the challenge in exchange for food and accommodation,” says analyst Aisha Siddiqa.
In many of these madrassas, which are found off highways and in isolated rural locations, entry is severely restricted. Local journalists who tried to enter some of the camps were roughed up and threatened with dire consequences.
Much of the money for these camps comes from Arab countries say locals in Multan and Bahawalpur. At the same time, there seems to be little or no effort by the Punjab government to put in money here to jump start economic activity. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer says that per capita development expenditure for Lahore stands at Rs 30,000 while in districts of South Punjab it is not over Rs 400.
As a result, once vibrants towns have turned into economically deprived cities. Lack of government funding and neglect have meant a poor education system, producing young men and women who end up remaining unemployed — and frustrated. It is not a coincidence that the first women suicide bombers — employed by the sectarian outfit Lashkar-e-Jhagvi, came from this area. So far there are no indications that any efforts will be made to change things.
Interior minister Rehman Malik has hinted at an army operation here with locals expecting the government to follow this up with a economic package for the region.
At the same time, there is also no indication that the government will stop patronising some of the militant organisations.
National Party leader Mukhtiar Bacha says that the number of madrassas in Punjab is three times the official figure of 20,000. “Most of these madrassas are allogned to militant organisation which enjoy official patronage.”
These analysts say that a military operation in South Punjab will come to nought if the government continues to support some of the militant organisations, particularly those it sees as anti-India. “They will just move away and then re-group,” says Bacha.
Said Alam Mehsud of the nationalist Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party takes this one step further. According to him, Punjab “is the hub of extremist elements in Pakistan” And “no militant organisation operates on its own. They are all connected and at the end of the day some of them are connected to state patronage.” For him, the madrassas are not the problem. Like Sherry Rehman, the issue is official attidtudes and sympathies. Until this does not change, the problem will not go away, he adds.