With an estimated 15,000 religious schools primarily teaching the Quran to more than 1 million students, Pakistan could reduce the risk of militancy by requiring madrassas to teach courses that might provide better alternatives for their students’ futures, according to a Pakistan police official doing a professional affiliation with USIP.

How Pakistan Might Bring Madrassa Education into the Mainstream
Photo Credit: New York Times

Pakistan is a nation of 180 million people with a youth bulge behind only China and India.  Pakistan’s own “war on terror” is in its 12th year and is projected by some estimates to have cost the economy $78 billion, and a  human loss estimated at 40,000 dead.

Madrassas, or religious schools that primarily teach the Quran, are often blamed as one of the main sources of fundamentalism and militancy in Pakistan. Generally, they’re seen as propagating a myopic, militant version of Islam. But, while varying estimates find that more than 15,000 such Muslim religious schools across Pakistan educate more than 1 million students, only a small number of madrassas are involved in indoctrination, recruitment and training of students for a violent or radical role.  

Still, students of madrassas, called “Talibs” in local languages, have few options of work awaiting them when they complete their schooling. Some might assume the role of a local imam of a mosque, while others might become teachers or aides in similar madrassas.

Bringing all madrassas into the mainstream of Pakistani society with mandatory registration and course offerings in mathematics, science and business studies would go a long way toward providing alternatives for future employment and blunting the potential temptation to militancy. Similar reforms have been considered occasionally for years.

In Pakistan, 21 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a- day, according to the United Nations. With an average family size of six people and 60 percent of the population living in rural areas,  simply feeding, clothing and educating the children becomes a monumental challenge. Under extreme poverty in rural areas, the father is generally the sole breadwinner. The girls in the family help the mother in daily chores and, given the male-dominated culture, they may even be given less to eat than boys to lessen the burden.

Sending the boys to a madrassa solves at least some of these problems because the schools provide two meals a day, clothing, and sometimes even lodging. Parents also may get a certain spiritual satisfaction from knowing their sons are gaining  knowledge about Islam and studying the Quran. In that sense, the father of the family discharges his perceived duties both towards God as well as his society in ensuring his sons are fed and educated.

Pakistan has to accept this reality and find a solution that would help not only tackle the issue of fundamentalism today, but also provide better options to the next generation of madrassa students.  One way to address the conundrum is to adopt legislation requiring madrassas to register, be audited and reform their curriculum. The Wafaq-ul-Madaras, a body of scholars representing the five major schools of thought in Islam, should be consulted and persuaded to support the changes to achieve optimum results.

Mandatory mathematics, science and business studies would be added to the existing study of the Quran and other Islamic teachings in schools that don’t already offer a hearty mix. Students who complete the courses satisfactorily would receive a certificate of education equivalent to that of any public school after ten years of education.

This equivalence of status and increased knowledge would help students compete for jobs beyond mosques and madrassas. To take the idea further, a certain number of slots might be allocated in vocational and technical institutes for students who drop out of the madrassas that offer the more demanding coursework.

This would help madrassa students pursue a broader range of jobs and prevent their exclusion from mainstream education and employment opportunities. This could be a way forward, with multiple short-term and long-term benefits to overcome the menace of extremism and militancy in Pakistan. The new government chosen by voters in the general elections of  May 11 should focus on this aspect as one of the pillars of any effective and comprehensive strategy to counter extremism and terrorism.

Ahmad Jehangir is of the deputy inspector general of police in Pakistan and recently was promoted to the rank of deputy inspector general. He is completing a two-month professional affiliation with USIP as part of a year-long Humphrey Fellowship in the U.S. at American University’s Washington College of Law.

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