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KARACHI, Mar 25 2008 (IPS) - Mehboob Illahi, 15, cannot wait to leave Pakistan and the Jamia Binoria, the largest madrassa (religious school) in Karachi, forever.
When Ilahi does return, it will be as a hafiz, someone who has memorised the 30 chapters of the Holy Quran in Arabic. This is no mean feat although a hafiz may not understand a single word of what he has memorised. This is the beginning of religious education in most madrassas for children between 6 to 15 years of age.
“When I first came I cried a lot,” Ilahi admits in his heavily-accented American English. “It was difficult to get used to the pattern of living and the dust bothered me a lot.’’
Illahi, with all his complaints, is among the 600 international students (both girls and boys) studying at the Jamia Binoria.
Hussain Abdul Momin, 28, from Niger, already a hafiz, has been at Binoria for eight years. He wants to be a religious teacher when he goes back after finishing the six-year aalim (scholar’s) course that he is doing. He came to Pakistan because “the madrassa education here is renowned in the Islamic world for excellence’’.
“It’s a misconception spread by the government itself,” says Mufti Muhammad Naeem, the principal and founder of the Jamia, which began in 1978 and now has six branches across the metropolis. He dismisses outright the idea that madrassas have become breeding grounds for radicalism.
“Radicalism should not be seen in isolation. It is a reaction to various factors. The phenomenon of what you call globalisation is actually western imperialism, the consumerist and hedonistic culture that we have emulated from the west, the untold collateral damage caused by the American war on terror… and the state’s role perceived as American lackey have compounded it,” he says.
“It is the government’s dangerous U-turn policy that is causing so much disenchantment and the crises we are in right now,” he says, referring to the increase in suicide attacks and bomb blasts. “The same jihadis spawned by the government have gone against their creators,’’ he said pointing to a spate of attacks, over the past year, on the police and security forces.
There are some 20,000 to 25,000 big and small madrassas, providing education, boarding and meals to 1.6 million children, which accounts for about eight percent of all Pakistani children of school-going age, according to Mufti Naeem.
And most of these students are, unlike Ilahi and other foreigners, in the madrassas because they have nowhere else to turn to for an education.
“There are reasons why the poor send their children to madrassas… the state does not provide them educational support,” says Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a political analyst.
Madrassas also provide an escape route from feudal oppression. Mufti Naeem adds that social exclusion and economic deprivation are major reasons why many youngsters are drawn towards religious militancy.
“Madrassas have direct as well as indirect link with terrorism,’’ admits Rizvi.
In the Pashtun belt bordering Afghanistan especially, say analysts, there is neither agriculture nor industry. Most male members have migrated to the cities and send home remittances. For these families madrassas provide a measure of social security. Children are assured of not just regular meals but a semblance of education and dignity.
Hundreds of madrassas were established in and around Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in the 1980s, and these had direct links with the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. “A good number of Pakistani madrassas, even from the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, sent their students to help the Taliban in their war against the Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance,” says Rizvi.
He says Mufti Naeem’s Jamia Binoria, belonging to the Deobandi school of thought (an Islamic revivalist movement which started in India), was among the few that helped the Taliban.
“Most madrassas make an indirect contribution to extremism and terrorism by creating a state of mind among their students that is extremely narrow that makes them vulnerable to extremist-jihadi appeals. It is this state of mind that is the major cause of Pakistanis drifting into religious and cultural intolerance,” says Rizvi.
“The issue of terrorism is not with madrassas themselves but the ideology being taught by some segments of the Deobandi school,” agrees Zaid Hamid, heading Brasstacks, an Islamabad-based think tank.
Hamid, however, points out the hazards of making generalisations about them. “Not all Deobandi madrassas subscribe to this ideology of violence,” he said.
Apart from the strict regimen the students follow, they have little idea of what is going on in the world outside. They have no access to the daily newspapers (although the seminary takes out a weekly newspaper) because the principal says he does not “want the students to develop a political ideology and corrupt their minds as it can lead to trouble’’.
There is no TV either. While the school has a computer lab and some 40 computers are seen lined up and ready to be installed, Internet and mobile phones are accessible only to foreign students.
As for leisure, there is almost nothing for the young minds to look forward to except play cricket or football in the evening. “We have come here to learn. The idea is not to get distracted by the world outside and its many attractions, but to study deen (religion),” says Momin, rejecting the notion of fun.
Illahi, however, confesses that when he visits his uncles on holidays, he plays computer games, watches some TV and even goes swimming.
Enrollment dropped in the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., and many foreign students left, but the negative propaganda against Islam later helped “ignite among young Muslims, a thirst to know more about their religion with more and more getting enrolled now,” says Mufti Abdullah Hazarvi, who has been attached to the Jamia for over 18 years.
Following the attack, much money and effort went into the madrassa reform programmes but with limited success. “The strongest resistance came from madrassas linked with the Islamic political parties or those having a strong political profile,” says Rizvi.
In 2005, under extreme pressure from the U.S., the government began a crackdown on the seminaries to combat homegrown extremism that bred fanaticism.
The military government of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf took many measures, including a clampdown on banned militant Islamic organisations, conducting raids and the confiscation of inflammatory material. But the government seemed to stumble over the question of madrassa reform.
As first steps, the government wanted all faith schools to get registered, modernise their curriculum and reveal their financiers.
Till last year 14,656 of the 20,000 or so such schools registered voluntarily with the ministry of religious affairs and all of them have, willy-nilly, modernised their syllabi, or at least they say so.
Mufti Hazarvi is not happy with such interference. “By demanding that we teach other subjects, they are diverting our students from religious studies,” he says, angrily. “It’s really unfair when our demand, that secular educational institutions must also teach Islamic studies, has fallen on deaf ears.”
“Most madrassas, back in 2005, were ready to register and many, like ours had already revised our curriculum. The issue came up when most madrassas, including us, resisted our accounts being audited,” says Mufti Naeem.
According to the principal, they spend Rs 5,000,000 (83,000 US dollars)) per month on running a school that accommodates some 4,000 boys and girls (600 foreign students) providing free meals, boarding (a few pay), and medical facilities. There are an additional 3,000 day scholars. Yet, it does not depend on any government (Pakistani or other) for its funding.
“We did not want to divulge our sources as many individuals who fund us do not want their charitable ventures to be made public,” says Mufti Naeem. Many Pakistani philanthropists abroad, he says, stopped sending funds for fear of being linked with terrorism.
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