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Pakistan grappling with the problem of hate-breeding, violence-legitimizing madrassas

RadicalizationPakistan grappling with the problem of hate-breeding, violence-legitimizing madrassas

Published 19 February 2015

Before many young radical Muslims take up arms with jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, they receive their first lessons on radical Islam from madrassas, Islamic schools that serve as an alternative to government or expensive private schools. The 9/11 Commission said these Pakistani schools were “incubators for violent extremism.” Pakistan has anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 madrasas, many of which have existed since the country’s founding nearly seven decades ago. In the wake of the killing by the Taiban of more than 150 people, most of them high-school students, at an army-run school in December 2014, the attitudes of many Pakistanis toward the madrassas are changing. The government has begun to monitor the funding of these religious schools more tightly, but critics say this is the wrong approach. The problem is not school funding, says one critic. “The actual problem is what’s taught in the madrassa, because that curriculum breeds hatred, violence and legitimizes violence against non-Muslims.”

Before many young radical Muslims take up arms with jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, they receive their first lessons on radical Islam from madrassas, Islamic schools that serve as an alternative to government or expensive private schools. ‘‘They create a sensibility among children that later turns into a big support base for extremist and sectarian views,” said A. H. Nayyar, a Pakistani physicist and nuclear activist, who has also researched and written on Madrassa education.

Pakistan has anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 madrasas, many of which have existed since the country’s founding nearly seven decades ago. After the 9/11 terror attacks, the 9/11 Commission said some of Pakistan’s schools were “incubators for violent extremism.” The Bush administration soon pressured then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to take action. Musharraf issued an order that required all religious schools to register and submit an audited financial statement, but it made little impact as lawmakers refused to back the measure.

Bloomberg News reports that now in its own war against radical Islam, Pakistan is looking to regulate madrassas by reattempting to monitor their finances. “Their target is madrassas because they’re scared of Islam,” said Maulana Abdul Aziz, head of Pakistan’s most influential Red Mosque. Aziz has defended suicide bombing, condemned the nation’s military, and even named a library after Osama bin Laden, all while blaming “the West” for the attempted crackdown on Islamic schools. “This foreign agenda to shut madrassas will never be accomplished. There were many who tried in the past but did not succeed,” he said in an interview.

Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s new policy toward madrassas, however, represents the country’s shift in attitudes on militants, specifically the Taliban, after the group killed more than 150 people, most of them high-school students, at an army-run school in December 2014. The public’s “soft spot” for the Taliban over its fight against the “West” has been evaporating since the group initiated more violent attacks in Pakistan after talks with the Pakistani government collapsed last year, said Rashid Ahmad, head of the international relations department at the University of Sargodha in Punjab province.

A 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed that Pakistanis viewed India as the nation’s primary security threat by a margin of two to one over the Taliban, but a January 2015 Gallup Pakistan opinion poll found that 52 percent of respondents saw the Taliban as a greater threat than India. “The perception has changed,” said Khan.

Monitoring funding for madrassas to eliminate extremist education has been difficult for Pakistani officials. Many madrassas have no formal structure and most lack transparency around financing. “Your average Pakistani madrassa doesn’t meet in a large building with a sign out front that says ‘Madrassa,’” said Anatol Lieven, author of Pakistan: A Hard Country. “You can’t really inspect them. All you can do then is shut them down and arrest the teachers, but then where will the students go to school? There are very few state schools in areas of militant recruitment.’’

Madrassa leaders have not decided whether to disclose their funding, said Hanif Jalandari, a senior leader with Wafaq ul Madaris al-Arabia, which says it represents 18,000 madrassas, including one operated by Aziz. Pakistanis who favor regulation on madrassas have pointed to wealthy Saudis as major backers of radical Islamic schools. Saudi Arabia’s funding of madrassas have been well documented. According to South Coast Today, “Saudi Arabia funded various groups, madrassas and mosques during the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. By doing so, it created a network of institutions that would eventually give rise to the Taliban. These exports also stretch to Europe.” Bloomberg notes that the United States also joined Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to funnel money into Pakistan to encourage students to help neighboring Afghanistan repel the Soviet Union. On the current allegations, Saudi Arabia claims that all recipients of its funds have been vetted.

Imtiaz Gul, executive director at the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, believes monitoring funding for madrassas is ineffective. Most of the funds, he says, come in suitcases full of cash when religious leaders go abroad. He wants the government to instead regulate education. “The government is flogging the wrong horse,” Gul said. “The actual problem is what’s taught in the madrassa, because that curriculum breeds hatred, violence and legitimizes violence against non-Muslims.”

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