Earlier this month, Maharashtra’s BJP government voted to derecognise schools that teach religion without also teaching the primary subjects: mathematics, science, and English.

Although a few Vedic schools are likely to be classified as ‘non-schools’, this step is primarily directed towards the state’s madressahs.

To be eligible for state grants, they must now teach primary subjects in addition to traditional madressah subjects.

By this decision any child, male or female, will officially be considered uneducated and out-of-school if enrolled in an institution that does not follow the state’s formal school syllabus in these subjects.

Is this good or bad? Predictably, Indian Muslims have protested this as anti-Muslim. Indeed, given the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, to be suspicious of underlying motives is reasonable.

But let us set this aside and judge this new development at face value. It is a fact that children who do not know English, math, or science cannot compete in the job market or benefit from university-level education.

They become the victim of conspiracy theories, pseudo-scientific nonsense, and various forms of illogic. Madressah graduates can become maulvis and qazis but not engineers, scientists, or doctors. India sees its madressahs as posing a serious education problem but not — at least officially — as a terrorism problem.

This view must be contrasted against Pakistan’s which now sees its madressahs entirely through a security lens.

From the 1980s, these institutions had been used to provide expendable warriors for use in Afghanistan and then later in Kashmir.

Although government-sponsored radicalisation tapered off after 9/11, putting the genie back in the bottle has proved difficult. Dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of madressahs now generate militancy mostly directed against the Pakistan Army and ordinary Pakistanis.

In an analysis of the profiles of suicide bombers who have struck in Punjab, the Punjab police said more than two-thirds had attended madressahs.

There are many instances where accidental detonations inside madressah premises have killed would-be suicide attackers.

Special Branch has identified dozens of madressahs that are linked to militant groups.

Nevertheless a state of denial had persisted and the public was largely inclined towards seeing madressahs as peaceful religious institutions.

Unless horizons are broadened by including secular subjects, madressahs will remain a perennial danger.

This changed, at least for a while, after the Army Public School massacre on Dec 16, 2014. Over the protestations of the JUI and Jamaat-i-Islami, parliament approved the National Action Plan (NAP) a month later.

This plan included insistence upon madressah reform as a means of controlling religious extremism. Hitherto unregistered madressahs were to be registered, hate speech and militant activities stopped, and funding sources uncovered.

But NAP did not call for a revamping of the content taught in madressahs, and did not insist upon the inclusion of primary subjects. This is a serious omission.

Even if by some miracle NAP’s idea of madressah reform could be implemented, it would scarcely change the worldview that makes militancy attractive.

Living in a primitive world where he is cut off from modern thought and almost all sources of authentic information, the madressah student can be made to believe anything.

Unless horizons are broadened by including secular subjects, madressahs will remain a perennial danger to state and society. Paradoxically, the BJP’s approach to madressah reform is the more enlightened one!

Nevertheless, I have no illusions on how difficult a task this will be. On the request of the-then minister for education, Sardar Aseff Ahmad Ali, the five heads of Pakistan’s wafaqs (madressah boards) and their deputies had gathered around a conference table.

The wafaqs are divided along political and sectarian lines. I was charged with enthusing them into teaching science and math in their institutions.

After expressing due deference to these powerful men who control what is taught to millions of students, I then proceeded to give a 20-minute lecture on how Muslim scientific achievements in the Golden Age had established Islam as a great world civilisation.

The bearded gentlemen were unimpressed. If you want to teach science and engineering in your universities that is your business, they said, but leave matters of faith to us.

The head of one wafaq said his branch of madressahs already taught science and math, and was not interested in further changes.

When the minister offered large sums of money if they modified their curricula, they unanimously said they would welcome the money — but only if it was unconditional. The meeting was a failure.

So what is to be done? As it stands, although faced by NAP, madressah heads have flatly refused to discuss their funding sources or show accounts to the government, and there are probably more unregistered madressahs than registered ones.

According to a report in this newspaper (July 16), law-enforcement officials are admitting helplessness in closing down even a single one of the 579 unregistered madressahs in Karachi because of their enormous street power, and the backing provided by religious political parties.

Curriculum reform may, therefore, appear even more difficult. But, in fact, unexploited opportunities are available to the authorities.

In 1981 Gen Ziaul Haq had ordered that various levels of madressah asnad (certificates) be equivalenced with regular certificates and degrees (bachelor’s, master’s, PhD), and the University Grants Commission (now called HEC) was empowered to determine equivalency requirements.

This gives the HEC leverage over quality: if madressahs are to teach English, math, and science, they must be tested by the same standards as in public schools.

More importantly, HEC can insist on curriculum changes and require that at least some mind-broadening subjects be taught.

Difficult or not, ultimately there is no alternative but for the Pakistani state to bring madressah and mosque under its control. Mere policing will not do.

Instead, the content of instruction must be shifted away from a paranoid and destructive vision of the world towards an inclusive and reasoned one.

Pakistan must do so even in the face of street power, as well as disapproval by Arab countries that fund those brands of madressahs which serve their narrow ideological interests.

Therefore reform must be done incrementally and carefully, and without provoking a massive backlash. But it has to be done.


Written by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2015.

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