Journal Archive > 2002 > February

Pakistan's 'rent-a-son' agencies

Newspapers nowadays are regularly carrying reports with intriguing anecdotes about the Madrasahs in Pakistan. It appears that Islamabad-based Western journalists are spending much of their time filing stories about different aspects of Pakistani society in order to compete with and outweigh each other. The facts in their articles are neither concocted nor false, but one feels that some of them lack in-depth analysis. In particular, the transformation of Pakistani Madrasahs from non-violent religious seminaries to "rent-a-son-agencies" needs to be analyzed and probed far more objectively.

In Islamic history, Madrasahs were the major source of religious and scientific learning, especially between the 7th and 11th centuries, producing luminaries such as Alberuni, Ibne-Sina, Al-Khawarizmi and Jabir ibne-Hayan. Schools in Damascus and Baghdad were like MIT or Harvard of those days. But when the degeneration set in, these institutions became the graveyard of knowledge and scholarship.

Muslims in the Indian subcontinent carried the Madrasah tradition, but it was restricted to the religious domain. These institutions did produce some eminent religious scholars. At the same time, they were instrumental in segmenting religious thought into different disciplines and in narrowing the vision of many who passed through their portals.

The growth of Madrasahs
At the time of Pakistan's inception in 1947, the new state was home only to about 250 such religious schools. Now, the Madrasahs are estimated to be around 50,000. The curriculum and textbooks in these institutions are outdated. Also, contrary to the Holy Koran's emphasis on reflection and contemplation, the students are taught only to memorize the verses of the book. They are not exposed to its meaning because that is perceived as counter-productive for the mullah. In reference to her recent visit to a Madrasah in Pakistan, Jessica Stern of Harvard University testified before the House Committee on Government Reform that, "In a school that purportedly offered a broad curriculum, a teacher I questioned could not multiply seven times eight."

Before the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there were approximately 2,000 Madrasahs, a far smaller number compared to today. These institutions were orthodox and backward but were by no means militant. However, during the Soviet occupation, Pakistan's involvement in the Afghan resistance movement led to a massive mushrooming of the Madrasahs and a significant increase in their militancy. The freedom fighters, courtesy of the CIA-Pakistani intelligence communities, soon became mujahids (holy warriors). A retired Pakistani general, Kamal Matinuddin, maintains in his book, The Taliban Phenomenon, that Gen. Zia-ul-Haq "established a chain of Madaris along the Afghan-Pakistan borderÉto create a belt of religiously oriented students who would assist the Afghan Mujahideen" and "also to satisfy the mullahs whom he was building up as his own constituency for political ends."

Hallmark of intolerance
What happened since then is now an open secret. The Taliban is one of the crowning achievements of these institutions. Widespread sectarian killings in Pakistan were yet another. Teaching bigotry and intolerance has been the hallmark of their education. And last but not the least, some Madrasahs got into the business of renting out the sons of the impoverished in the name of Jihad. While it was a homegrown plan, it could not have taken off without funds from Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf last year started a campaign to tackle the issue. But his remedy relied on "requests" to the Madrasahs to register with the government, to expand their curricula, to disclose their financial resources, to admit foreign students and to cease sending students to militant training camps. Among the 50,000 institutions, only 4,350 of them came forward and only for registration purposes.

The chancellor of Darul Uloom Haqqania, one of the most conservative Madrasahs where most of the Taliban leadership was educated, objected to what he called the government's attempt to "destroy the spirit of the Madrasahs under the cover of broadening their curriculum."

The rural poor send their children to these places either because of abject poverty or because of misguided religious notions of sacrifice. These parents donated to the cause of Allah without knowing what their children would be taught. In some cases, their sons soon became "martyrs," making parents overnight celebrities. This has served to encourage others in the village to send their own. To a great extent, it happens because the alternatives for the poor are very few. The elite, military, bureaucrats and industrialists have enough prestigious schools for their kids, so why should they bother?

Only 15 to 20 percent of Madrasahs are involved in militancy-related activities. The rest are teaching what is often contrary to the spirit of Islam and far from enlightenment, the core purpose of education.

Education vs. F-16s
What needs to be done to resolve this problem? The only way out is reform through an educational revolution. That would involve the closure of the decadent Madrasahs in Pakistan. But that can only happen when Pakistan begins to value schools more than F-16 fighters and submarines.

Any national education program requires money. An economic priority on education is therefore a critical prerequisite. Yet Pakistan's economy was a victim of the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, and later, it had to cater to the 2.5 million Afghan refugees when the West conveniently erased the episode from its memory.

Pakistan's economy is now being gravely threatened by joining the U.S. coalition. It means that the education sector, which is the recipient of only 2 percent of country's GNP, could again become an orphan. Instead of reviving the Pentagon's ties with the Pakistani army, aid for education should be one of the top priorities.

Hassan Abbas, a Pakistani government official, is a master's degree student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has served in the administrations of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (1994-95) and Gen. Pervez Musharraf (1999-2000). This article originally appeared in The Fletcher Ledger, the online journal of Fletcher students (