Pakistan launches reform of seminaries to control spread of extremism

By Zia Ur Rehman

Madrassa students on April 25 attend annual examinations at Jamia Mukhzul Uloom Karachi. [Zia Ur Rehman]

Madrassa students on April 25 attend annual examinations at Jamia Mukhzul Uloom Karachi. [Zia Ur Rehman]

KARACHI -- Pakistani authorities are furthering reforms to madrassas and to break the ties between some madrassas and militant outfits.

The efforts are aimed at streamlining religious education and controlling the spread of extremist ideology.

Reforms to "mainstream" more than 30,000 madrassas will take place under the purview of the Ministry of Education, according to Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, chief spokesperson for the Pakistani military.

"An Islamic education will continue to be provided, but the curriculum will not include hate speech," he said April 30 at a news conference in Rawalpindi. "Also, other subjects will be added to their syllabus.

Ghafoor's call to mainstream religious education -- not the first from a Pakistani official -- demonstrates decades of anxiety surrounding madrassas in Pakistan, which have faced long-running accusations that some of them promote radical ideologies and maintain ties to terrorist networks.

Following Ghafoor's press conference, Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood on May 6 met leaders of the nation's five madrassa boards in Islamabad to discuss the reforms.

During the meeting, both sides -- the Education Ministry and the madrassa boards -- agreed to register all 30,000 madrassas operating in the country, Mahmood said.

"The ministry will open ten regional centres ... for the madrassa registration, and those madrassas that do not acquire registration will be closed," he told Pakistan Forward.

Also under the agreement, the government will assist madrassa operators in opening their bank accounts and in processing visas for foreign students seeking admission in Pakistani seminaries, he said.

A welcome move

All five madrassa boards welcomed the move to place the responsibility for managing madrassas under the Education Ministry.

"It was our long-standing demand that the responsibility ... should be given to the Education Ministry," Maulana Ibrahim Sakargahi, spokesperson of Wifaq ul Madaris Al-Arabia, one of the five madrassa boards, told Pakistan Forward.

Previously, several ministries and government bodies -- such as those managing commerce, the interior and religious affairs -- supervised the madrassas, he said.

The registration and regulation of madrassas are one of the 20 objectives of the the National Action Plan, the government's counter-terrorism policy adopted in January 2015.

Madrassa leaders on several occasions accused the government of not renewing their registration, making it difficult for them to raise money.

"The madrassas face difficulties in opening new bank accounts and accuse security agencies of pursuing a policy of harassing the teachers and students in the name of collecting information," said Sakargahi, expressing hope that the latest efforts would resolve this issue.

Pakistani authorities in March took control of dozens of madrassas across the country belonging to two proscribed outfits -- Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), accusing those madrassas of involvement in subversive activities.

Better prospects for madrassa graduates

Most madrassa graduates work as schoolteachers of Islamic studies or Arabic, madrassa teachers, mosque prayer leaders or muezzins.

However, a large number of graduates remain frustrated by their limited or non-existent employment prospects.

The supply of madrassa graduates far surpasses demand, said Arshad Yousafzai, a Karachi-based journalist covering education and madrassas.

But in recent years, the government has announced some initiatives to help madrassa graduates financially, he told Pakistan Forward.

Last year, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP)'s provincial government started paying a monthly stipend of Rs. 10,000 ($70) to prayer leaders holding a degree from any of the five madrassa boards, costing the KP government about Rs. 3.25 billion ($22.3 million) annually.

Also, in the past few years, Islamic banks offering Sharia-compliant deposit accounts are fast becoming part of the new financial way of life in Pakistan. As such, some madrassas have started producing graduates with expertise in Islamic jurisprudence and finance.

In March, Darul Uloom Karachi announced it had begun offering a one-year diploma in business management for madrassa final-year students.

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