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|Plans for the Madrassa's|
|08/05/02 at 12:40:47|
|New York Times|
August 4, 2002
Pakistani Clerics Fight School Plans
By IAN FISHER
SLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 1 - The government here has been too nervous
to clamp down directly on the 10,000 madrasas in Pakistan, the Islamic
schools often accused of spreading religious extremism. One word in
the title of a proposed law says it all: it is the ordinance for
"voluntary" madrasa registration and regulation.
Yet over the last few weeks, Pakistan's usually fractious religious
leaders blasted the plans in one loud voice. They expressed fury at
any pressure for them to register, to submit to financial oversight or
to accept teacher training and textbooks in exchange for broadening
their curriculum beyond Islamic teaching.
"The government cannot impose these things on us," Rafi Usmani, leader
of a large and influential madrasa in Karachi, told thousands of
madrasa supporters at a meeting here in late July. "This is imposed by
the Americans, by foreign people."
Now, the military government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf - caught between
Western worry about the madrasas and the home-grown strength of the
clerics - appears to be backing down from even those gingerly steps.
This week, government ministers meeting with madrasa leaders said they
would consider watering down their proposals, raising questions of
whether anything would happen at all.
"It's back to the drawing board," said one Western diplomat here.
No firm decisions have been made. But the steps toward backing down,
said Najum Mushtaq, who wrote a report on madrasas published by the
International Crisis Group this week, could lead to failure for
Pakistan on two fronts.
For one, he said, an ultimate victory by the clerics could translate
into "a further entrenchment of the religious lobby.
"It has been punching way above its weight," he added. "Now it will
gain further nuisance value."
As important, he said, is a missed opportunity for a deeper discussion
about madrasas and what they mean for development and education in
Pakistan, a nation with high illiteracy and a chaotic educational
system, where madrasas offer many poor children the chance for an
A problem as worrisome as religious extremism, he said, is that many
madrasas provide little learning relevant to jobs outside mosques, or
beyond the 18th-century curriculum that most madrasas use.
"The original concept of madrasas was education," said Mr. Mushtaq,
who praised madrasas' potential to educate their roughly one million
students even as he criticized their currently narrow teachings. "That
tradition has just vanished. It has to be re-established as a system
of forward and modern education. And it has to be done in a way that
curbs extremist conpent."
Madrasas, which teach Islam and train clergy, have existed for a
millennium, but it is only in recent years that they have become a
strong social force. There were only 245 madrasas in 1947, the year of
Pakistan's independence from Britain. The numbers rose amid greater
Islamization and support for Muslims in Afghanistan in resisting the
Russian invasion, which began in 1979.
By 1995, the last official count, 3,906 madrasas were registered. The
government now says it believes there are 10,000, though no one knows
for certain. It is certain, however, that they educate Pakistan's
poorest children, giving madrasas legitimacy as social and charitable
Americans have focused intently on madrasas only since Sept. 11, when
thousands of madrasa students, including many foreign Arabs studying
in them, left to become the foot soldiers of jihad against Americans
Critics of the government's plans have succeeded partly by raising the
specter that American pressure is behind them. "It is an interesting
phenomenon," said Mukhtar Ahmed, principal of the secondary school
affiliated with the Mansoora madrasa in Lahore. "Anything that is
against American interests is called fanatic."
Abdul Malik, head of the Mansoora madrasa and other schools affiliated
with Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest religious party, blamed
Americans who wanted to sow strife between the clerics and the
government, and spoke of a "Jewish conspiracy." If the government
pushed too hard, he warned: "We would resist. This can't happen. It
can't be justified in any way."
American officials make no secret that they view madrasas as
incubators for extremism, but they deny they are behind the proposals.
Still, there is little in the proposals that would anger America.
Part of the plans would request the addition of English, mathematics,
social studies and science to madrasas teaching primary and secondary
students, and classes like computer and political science for high
school students. There would be voluntary bans on preaching militancy
or sectarian division.
Most contentious for the madrasas - and an area likely to be watered
down - are oversight and restrictions on financing, especially from
outside sources like Arab countries.
News reports here have focused on the renewed American aid program
that includes $100 million over the next five years to improve
Pakistan's schools. But, officials say, the program excludes madrasa
Yet the perception that Americans are behind the proposed changes
remains a major reason for caution on the part of General Musharraf.
His alliance with the United States on its campaign against terror in
neighboring Afghanistan is not popular, nor is his recent clampdown on
Muslim militants crossing over into Indian-controlled Kashmir.
General Musharraf's reputation as a more secular leader has not helped
him with religious groups.
A fight with madrasas, especially one perceived to be on behalf of the
United States, seems one battle too many for General Musharraf -
especially if he does not want to be at odds with religious leaders as
the nation holds in October its first parliamentary elections in three
Mr. Mushtaq, of the International Crisis Group, said one added
difficulty of reform is that madrasas vary so greatly, from small,
ignorant schools preaching a return to Islamic life a thousand years
ago to large, sophisticated schools with no opposition to teaching
secular subjects. And modern curriculum does not mean they embrace the
The Mansoora madrasa in Lahore is one example of the latter, where
boys bob back and forth as they memorize the entire Koran, as boys
here have for centuries, even as men like Mr. Ahmed, the principal,
talk of the need to modernize. He is proud that his school of 300
students, boys and girls, teaches English, math and computer science -
not the backward curriculum at most madrasas, which he said was
developed to produce civil servants for the Mogul empire. "Now there
are no Moguls," he said. "So madrasas do need reform. The crucial
question is, how are they to be reformed?"
For him, the answer is by Pakistan's religious leaders, in accordance
with their view of Islam. What is not acceptable, he and students in
Lahore say, is any hint of American involvement. Even at this most
modern of madrasa, it is perhaps best understood what they are not.
"This is the lesson of madrasas," said one student, Hamid Ali, 20.
"The lesson is that Western civilization is not good for Muslims."
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