PESHAWAR -- Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) authorities have approved a monthly stipend for imams of large mosques to allow them to devote their full energy toward religion and increase their respect in society.
The decision was made January 7 during a provincial cabinet meeting chaired by KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak.
The cabinet approved a monthly honourarium of Rs. 10,000 ($100) for Peshawar-based imams who are permanent residents of KP and are deemed qualified by any of the five boards of Dini Madaris.
A seven-member committee will also be formed at the district level to select imams who are eligible to receive the honourarium. The overall initiative is expected to cost Rs. 3.25 billion ($32 million) annually.
"The imams serving in KP mosques should be provided means and ways to uplift their position, serve their families and perform their duties with full commitment and dedication," KP Minister for Auqaf, Hajj, Religious and Minority Affairs Habib Ur Rehman told Pakistan Forward.
"The goals of the initiative include bettering prayer leaders, improving their status and preventing them from being influenced by outside pressure," he said.
Other efforts are under way to prevent the spread of extremism in the province.
The KP government last October began registering all seminaries as part of an effort to prevent the radicalisation of students.
Every seminary must register with the Education Department, pledge not to encourage militancy, anti-state activities or sectarianism, and allow annual audits by a recognised chartered accountant.
"The influence of prayer leaders and ulema on our lives within existing social boundaries is paramount and should not be undermined," said Maqsood Ahmed Salfi, a Peshawar religious scholar who is also an active member of the Pakistan Council of World Religions, an interfaith organisation.
"The respect that our prayer leaders command is at a grass-roots level, and they are more enthusiastically followed by the lower strata of the population," he told Pakistan Forward.
The position and status of imams demand that they receive not only due respect and reverence but also proper financial support for a life relative to their place in society, he said.
"The honourarium will minimise the chances of radicalisation, sectarianism and misuse of pulpits," he said.
"It is our moral obligation to provide better ways to sustain imams and enable them to fulfill their moral and religious obligations in an effective manner," Qari Roohullah Madani, a Peshawar-based religious scholar and former KP provincial minister, told Pakistan Forward.
The decision of the provincial government to give stipends to prayer leaders will help them continue their duties without any influence or pressure, he said.
"The effectiveness of the efforts would be increased if the government reviewed the allocated funds and made appropriate increases so that imams could be brought up to par with civil servants in the province," he said.
"Honouraria for qualified imams are a good step by the provincial government that will lead to the mainstreaming of prayer leaders, enhancing their role and position in society and ending a culture of hate speeches, sectarianism and extremism," Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah of Peshawar, former security secretary for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), told Pakistan Forward.
The initiative must be monitored by civil society members, he said.
"With certain exceptions, our prayer leaders, despite their position, have struggled with financial hardships, leading to their manipulation by vested interests," said Col. (ret.) G. B. Shah Bokhari, a Peshawar-based security analyst and columnist.
"Political and religious leaders affiliated with imams have been seen attempting to influence and pressure them," he told Pakistan Forward. In some cases affluent residents of neighbourhoods around mosques influenced prayer leaders, he added.
"A content and qualified man is in a better position to select his course and consider the effects of his decisions," he said.
"Reducing the chances of exploitation would increase the probability that our prayer leaders will prioritise their religious duties rather than falling prey to elements promoting sectarianism, extremism and [radicalism]," Bokhari said.
"Moreover, we can expect a more progressive role from prayer leaders against extremism after acknowledging their services and giving them due status in society," he said.