Pakistan begins registering thousands of madrassas to help curb terror links

By Zia Ur Rehman

Madrassa students in April 2019 attend annual examinations at a seminary in Karachi. [Zia Ur Rehman]

Madrassa students in April 2019 attend annual examinations at a seminary in Karachi. [Zia Ur Rehman]

ISLAMABAD -- Following months-long deliberations with leaders of various madrassa boards, Pakistani authorities have begun registering more than 30,000 religious schools operating across the country in a bid to curb terror financing and recruitment.

The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training since October 2 has set up 133 offices at the city and district level to facilitate the process, according to a notification issued by the ministry.

The ministry has published advertisements in local newspapers to provide the madrassa administrators guidance and contact information about the registration centres, said a senior official in the ministry who requested anonymity.

"The madrassa registration is part of the government's comprehensive plan to bring religious schools under its control and streamline religious education, incorporate modern subjects into their curriculum and make their funding transparent," said the official.

A journalist in Karachi on October 3 reads a government advertisement online about the registration of madrassas. [Zia Ur Rehman]

A journalist in Karachi on October 3 reads a government advertisement online about the registration of madrassas. [Zia Ur Rehman]

“The government has seen a positive response to the madrassa registration process, raising the hope that the effort will meet its target -- making all madrassas register with the Education Ministry," he added.

The ministry began the registration process after inking an agreement with Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan (ITMP), a body representing madrassas of five schools of thoughts in the country, in August 2019, said the official.

The registration process had been scheduled to begin in March but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past, successive Pakistani governments -- civilian and military -- failed in their efforts to regulate madrassas under pressure from religious groups that denounced reforms as a Western-backed, anti-Islam plot.

Pakistan has as many as 30,000 madrassas with more than 3 million students enrolled in courses ranging from memorisation of the Koran to specialisation in Arabic literature and Islamic jurisprudence.

The registration and regulation of madrassas have been among the 20 objectives of the National Action Plan (NAP), a counter-terrorism policy adopted by the government in January 2015 after Taliban militants killed more than than 150 schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014.

As part of the NAP, the provincial governments have completed the digital mapping of most of the madrassas, including information on locations and GPS co-ordinates.

The NAP sought to choke off financing for terrorists, leading the State Bank of Pakistan, the country's central bank, to track sources of madrassas' funds.

Under the recent agreement inked with the ITMP, the government will close down all madrassas that refuse to register with the ministry and will prohibit them from opening bank accounts.

Next step against terrorism

It is high time for such actions, said Abubakkar Yousafzai, a Karachi-based researcher who has worked on peace-building projects with madrassas.

"Except for registration and regulation, the government had not taken any concrete steps on the ground," he said.

While military crackdowns on terrorist outfits have been successful in weakening such groups, the government's new focus on regulating madrassas is the next logical step, Yousafzai said.

"Regulating the religious schools will help cut their links with militants and terror financing," he said, citing intelligence reports that suggest that some of the madrassas are involved with recruiting for and financing proscribed terror outfits.

The government's move will help Pakistan comply with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force, he said. The Paris-based intergovernmental body formally placed Pakistan on its grey list in June 2018 for failing to take action against money laundering and terror financing.

Madrassa administrators applauded the government's decision to hand over the responsibility of dealing with religious schools to the Education Ministry.

Previously, several ministries and government bodies -- such as those managing commerce, the interior, and religious affairs -- supervised the madrassas, said Qari Abdul Rasheed, an administrator of a madrassa in Karachi.

Registration with the ministry will help the schools in opening bank accounts and obtaining other government incentives, such as allowing madrassa students to take part in school and college board tests and earn their degrees, said Rasheed.

"In the past, law enforcement agencies pursued a policy of harassing the teachers and students of the madrassas in the name of collecting information," said Rasheed, expressing hope that the latest efforts would resolve this issue.

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