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Madrassa Outcry: A Victim of Its Own Fundamentalism

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The Pakistani madrasa has become a deeply troubling aspect of Islamic education to Western politicians and public. The images of religious teachings that focus on deep anti-Americanism, terrorists ideologies, and methods of jihad have dominated this space in Western conscience. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity inherent in these schools that has been replaced, not with answers, but estimates and false conclusions. To understand the most fundamentalist of Islamic education in Pakistan, there’s a need to examine the Deoband school of India, the foundation in which the modern Pakistani madrassa was built on.

The Deoband school began in roughly 1857, but its curriculum is based on the eighteenth century Dars’I Nizami, a set of thirteen core texts that are used in Deobandi institutions over 6-8 years. After a failed revolt against British India in 1857, the ulema formed madrassas under a perceived threat of Hindu religious pressure, Western influence, and Christian missionaries. They believed they were under siege in their own country and formed a close knit educational culture that was self labeled as an “educational jihad.” Run without state funding, registration, or curriculum review, India’s Muslim’s were forming a small protective culture around their believers as the larger Indian society evolved around them.

When Pakistan was established in 1947, many Deobandi ulema travelled to Pakistan and erected madrassas to sway the country from falling into secularism or foreign religiosity. The Pakistani Deoband schools are still considered the most fundamentalist, the most likely to inspire young jihadists, and the madrassas most likely to be targeted by reformists. Yet, these schools are historically misunderstood and the reasons for the once venerable institution to fall into jihadist influence are many.

At the height of the Cold War, the United States saw an opportunity in Afghanistan that represented the Soviet Union’s ‘Vietnam’ moment. While the weapons supplied to the Mujahideen has been well documented, the amount of persuasion that Washington extended to the Mujahideen reached into the madrassas, many of which were of the Deoband tradition. Textbooks were created by the University of Nebraska at Omaha for $50 million and distributed, predominantly to the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), that distorted the words of the Koran to focus on the lesser jihad, defeating outward evil – communists in particular. This strategy largely succeeded in the FATA and the Mujahideen proved more than formidable for the Soviet Union, allowing the United States to quickly abandon the region. Developments in the madrassas and Pakistan after those events have created an environment of fundamentalist Islamic education unprecedented in history.

Since 1988, the number of madrassas in Pakistan have swelled from 3000 to over ten times that number. In 2005, the number stood at 35,000 and recent estimates show some leveling off, with about 40,000 today, but does not include the unregistered Deobandi schools in the FATA. This was achieved not only by US dollars entering the FATA and Pakistani government, but by the complete failure of the Pakistani state controlled public education system, with parents doing whatever they can to receive a decent education for their children. Contemporaneously, the Pakistani population burgeoned phenomenally in this period, from 34 million in 1951 to nearly 200 million today. With little educational development from the state, including the building of woefully needed schools, the madrassa filled the immense void. Additionally, once the Soviets packed up and left the area to the ongoing civil war that has yet to subside, the United States paid little attention to Central Asia until September 11, 2001.

In the wake of September 11, the US made a push to alter fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Armed with a belief that the madrassas were essentially weapons of mass destruction, producing and training jihadists, the US demanded closing madrassas possibly linked to terrorism, changing the curriculum, and pushing children to attend public school. Nearly a quarter billion dollars were given to Pakistan to reform the madrassas. To change the very core of Islamic education was not in the clerics interests and push back was considerable. Furthermore, many madrassas refused to accept money if it jeopardized their autonomy. There was little accountability for where the money went and most scholars can find little trace as to what it was used for.

Madrassa educators believed that the West was targeting the foundation of Islam, to eradicate Islam, to forever alter it in a way that only benefits the West. While this is evident anti-American sentiment, the sentiment extended to the Pakistani government, who are seen as Western collaborators. Washington attempted to change the madrassas by enlisting Islamabad, but failed to take into account that both entities were highly criticized within the madrassas for meddling in their religious affairs. By attempting to reform the madrasas, change curriculum, and push public education, this belief was only strengthened. Thus, US policy focused on changing the Pakistani educational culture into a pluralistic state governed public educational model. However, this does not take into account how the madrassas, or even the people, function within the governmental model. Madrassas rely on autonomy and non-interference from foreign agents to teach Islamic fundamentalism unencumbered. Not only do many madrassas not accept money from the state, they openly do not trust Islamabad. As Pakistan sways on what to do with the madrassas, they’ve lost the trust of the people in the areas where militant madrassas most likely exist.

After September 11, Pakistan reorganized and reformed the madrassa framework with a 2002 ordinance. Interestingly, President Musharraf attempted to pass a similar bill in August of 2001, but was unable to do so. After the passing of the bill, Islamic scholars described a crisis of confidence between the government and madrassas and spoke of corruption and lack of consistency in government policy. With no support from the madrassa, the reorganization and reforms failed. Then, in 2010, Islamabad reversed course by adopting an 18th amendment to their constitution and increased autonomy among its providences, noticeably in its curriculum and religious leanings for madrassa. Pakistan has long attempted to gain more control of the madrassas, especially as their burgeoned in the 1980s and then again after September 11. However, with the passing of the 18th amendment, Pakistan recognized the ineffectualness of such policy. However, when terrorist attacks occur in Pakistan, the state retaliates often by striking at the FATA. A single 2006 madrassa retaliatory strike killed 82 students in Burjh, heightening distrust and hostility between government and Islamic educational leaders. Therefore, the process Pakistan has deployed has had little cohesion, leaving those in the FATA and poorer areas with little trust and comprehension of what might policy the next government may enact.

The United States policy has centered around greater Pakistani control of madrassas scholarly materials and US aid to build more public schools. This has also come at a time when drone strikes have established themselves as the future of warfare. Not only do clerics and poorer provinces mistrust their own government, but they actively suspect corruption and collusion between Washington and Islamabad, a difficult combination to win trust or deploy soft power by building schools. Conversely, Pakistan has made token attempts to follow the United States’ demands, while periodically striking the FATA and madrassas when terrorists threats in Islamabad become more severe. This bifurcated policy builds distrust, suspicion, and resentment among Pakistanis. Since September 11, the narrative has read as us vs. them, secularism vs. fundamentalism, state-sponsored vs. local, modern vs. traditional, the West vs. Central Asia. This narrative has only led to a protectionist culture within a greater society of perceived threat that has produced only polarization and harsher policies. There is a need to not discount religious communities and allow them to function within the state as citizens, with both sides recognizing that some schools produce terrorists. Without trust and remedying the cultural segregation, the ‘jihadi schools’ will continue to function hidden by a blanket of polarization that is pitting thousands of historically distinguished fundamentalist madrassas against its own government.

Brian Hughes is currently a student in the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE, USA.

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South Asia

The sizzling “Political Matrix”; What will happen now?

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Politics in Pakistan is unfortunately leaving scars that will fade away not that easily. Islamabad today is wrapped in thick political clouds since past few weeks. These last few weeks have altered all assumptions and calculations in the national political matrix.  While the political landscape today is sizzling with intensity, aggression and strain the economy is shattering every day.  Who is to blame for? What will happen now? And will sanity prevail?

The entire edifice of the “conspiracy mantra” which even made PTI commit violation of the constitution stands demolished today. It was one of the worst advices Imran khan could ever get from his party among the list of many others. Sadly he made his entire politics captive to this conspiracy myth.  But today no one questions them on the impact it had on our foreign policy. US today feels betrayed, Saudis not ready to give aid, Chinese worried about their stakes and it continues.  So diplomatically this conspiracy mantra has damaged Pakistan like anything.

Imran Khan’s followers see nothing wrong in what he says and what he does. They absolutely reject all the facts, all the logics and embrace the rhetoric which is fuelling more today with a greater intensity. Imran khan is leading this campaign more aggressively. Khan very well knows that bringing large crowds to Islamabad will have an impact only if there is some kind of aggression.  The leaders on different occasions already hinted towards an aggressive March. He very well realizes that the figure of 2.5 Million is unrealistic but keeping in view the size of Islamabad, 0.1 Million crowd will even be perceived as a bigger crowd. So can he force the early elections at this stage? How will the government react to it? For instance let’s accept this narrative that the pressure of crowd aids PTI in getting an early election call and PTI wins it. So now what next? How will you deal with the mighty US? The economy is already sinking. You need aid to feed it but no one is providing you that. Then how will you stop dollar from going above 200? How will you provide relief from the soaring fuel prices when you won’t have money for a subsidy even? Forget about one lakh jobs and 50 lakh houses.

From the past few weeks we haven’t heard any PTI leader telling any economic plan or any diplomatic plan to revive relations. How will you deal with the IFI’s, World Bank & IMF when they’re all US controlled and as per your narrative you won’t accept “Amreeka ki Ghulami” or USA’s dictatorship.

So now what options the present regime has? The government would of course like to stop this building dangerous momentum of “Azadi March”. They would not like any big clash in Islamabad which results in bigger mess and chaos. The PDM government also has a much bigger fish to deal with, the same sinking economy. They came into power with this narrative to fix economy as former Premiere was unable to do it.  The key cabinet members made more than two different official visits.  The instructions are coming from London today as a decisive power so who will run the government? Who will run the system? Will the IMF aid? What will be the upcoming budget about? This upcoming budget is a bigger risk for this government along with an already announced to Long march call. Khan has already played a dangerous narrative especially with the blame of another conspiracy being made about his Life.   

The stakes, the narrative and the politics of every party is at risk today.  But above that, Pakistan is at risk. The dread is in the air. The end of May will be heated ferociously in Islamabad, whether politically or meteorologically.

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Sri Lankan economic crisis and the China factor

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After the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the sole member of the United National Party (UNP), was sworn in as Sri Lankan Prime Minister on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Wickremesinghe will be holding the position of Sri Lankan PM for the sixth time. While the new Sri Lankan PM is a seasoned administrator, the task of restoring even a modicum of normalcy to the island nation’s economy, which is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 seems to be a Herculean task (Wickremesinghe has clearly indicated, that his first task will be ensuring the supply of electricity, diesel and petrol to the people).

 The grave economic crisis, which has resulted in acute shortage of food and essential commodities have brought ordinary people on the roads and demonstrations have resulted in violence and loss of lives (the Sri Lankan President had to declare a state of emergency twice first last month and then earlier this month). There had been a growing clamor for the resignation by President Gottabaya Rajapaksa but Wickremesinghe was sworn in after the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa (protests have been carrying on even after the swearing in of Wickremesinghe)

During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had tried to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence upon China, and in his current tenure he will be compelled to do the same. He had also been critical of the previous government for not approaching the IMF for assistance (Wickremesinghe has been repeatedly accused of being pro-west and having neoliberal leanings by many of his political opponents).

It would be pertinent to point out, that the PM had also batted for a coordinated regional response, by SAARC vis-à-vis the covid19 pandemic. The new Sri Lankan PM has also been an ardent advocate of improving ties with India.

While it is true, that Sri Lanka finds itself in the current situation due to economic mismanagement and excessive dependence upon the tourism sector (which faced a severe setback as a result of covid 19), it is tough to overlook the level of debts piled vis-à-vis China, and the fact that the Island nation was following China’s model of economic growth with a focus on big ticket infrastructure projects.

Another South Asian nation — Pakistan which witnessed a change last month where Shehbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, replacing Imran Khan, also faces daunting economic challenges.  Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be a little over $ 10 billion on May 6, 2022 and the Pakistani Rupee fell to its all time low versus the US Dollar on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Shehbaz Sharif ever since taking over as PM has repeatedly reiterated the importance of Pakistan’s ties with China and the Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart alluded to the same, with Pakistan’s Foreign office in a statement released after the conversation between Bhutto and Wang Yi said:

 “underscored his determination to inject fresh momentum in the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership and add new avenues to practical cooperation”.

 Yet, China has categorically said that it will not provide any financial assistance until Pakistan resumes the IMF aid program. Pakistan has been compelled to look at other alternatives such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have also said that without the revival of the IMF program aid will not be possible. Only recently, Chinese power companies functioning under the umbrella of the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC) have threatened to shut down their operations if their dues (to the tune of 1.59 billion USD) are not cleared. China had also reacted very strongly to the terror attack on Karachi University in which three Chinese teachers lost their lives, this is the second such attack after 2021. China in recent years had also indicated to Pakistan, that it was not happy with the progress of the China Pakistan Economic (CPEC) project. The current government in Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to this fact.

One point which is abundantly clear from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka as well as the challenges which Pakistan is facing is that excessive dependence upon China has disastrous consequences in the long run. If one were to look at the case of South Asia, Bangladesh has been astute by not being excessively dependent upon China – it has maintained robust economic relations with India and Japan. Given the changing economic situation it is becoming increasingly important for developing countries, especially in South Asia, to join hands to confront the mounting challenges posed by excessive dependency upon China. US, Japan and western multilateral bodies and financial institutions need to find common ground and provide developing countries with an alternative economic narrative. It is also time for India along with other countries in the South Asian region to find common ground and focus on robust economic cooperation.

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Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and Taliban’s obsession with women’s rights

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A mother and her child in the Haji camp for internally displaced people in Kandahar, Afghanistan. © UNICEF Afghanistan

The Taliban’s latest move to restrict the rights of women points to an obsession with women’s rights. This is in stark contrast to the neglect the regime is showing in addressing an ever worsening economic and humanitarian crisis. With Afghan’s facing poverty and starvation, the Taliban needs to focus on rebuilding the country, and this can only be achieved by respecting the rights of women.

This comes after the Taliban ordered all women to cover their faces in public, making it the latest restriction on the rights of women by the oppressive regime. The Taliban has previously forbidden women from travelling long distances unsupervised or working outside of the healthcare sector. The Taliban also faced international outcry earlier this year when they backflipped on a decision to allow women and girls to attend secondary school and university, making it impossible for women to receive an education.

The Taliban’s treatment of women is not a new development. During the regimes previous reign, between 1996 and 2001, it was described as the least feminist movement in the world. The Taliban forbade education, employment and access to healthcare delivered by men, while also making the veil mandatory and forbidding women to leave the home unless accompanied by a male family member. This was seen as the strictest interpretation of Sharia Law.

Contrary to claims made by the Taliban, the latest iteration of the movement is now attempting to do the same by systematically removing women from public life.

The difference this time is that, since the US withdrawal, the country has experienced an economic and humanitarian crisis. This is largely due to poor governance, the freezing of central bank assets by the US and the withdrawal of foreign aid in response to the Taliban takeover.

The situation is dire. Half the population, approximately 20 million people, are facing acute food insecurity, malnutrition, and hunger. Healthcare is notoriously difficult to access, and poverty is widespread, with women, persecuted minority groups and former government employees refused work and unable to provide for their families. The crisis is so critical that families are resorting to selling their children to delay starvation.

This raises the question of why the Taliban is so obsessed with restricting the rights of women when Afghanistan is falling apart around them. Strict adherence to Sharia Law aside, this attack of women’s rights is clearly to the Taliban’s detriment and the detriment of the people of Afghanistan. This position must change for the country to rebuild.

First and foremost, the actions of the Taliban and the humanitarian crisis is making the situation of women much worse, as women are one of Afghanistan’s the most vulnerable groups. The restriction of their rights has resulted in a lack of income and education, making women reliant on their families for food, water and sanitation products. This is meant that women are not only facing poverty and starvation, but they are also increasingly at risk of exploitation by family members and their communities.

Second, the removal of women from the workplace also affects Afghanistan as a whole. While the Taliban has allowed women to work in the health sector, many have not returned to work, dramatically reducing the number of doctors and nurses able to treat other women, particularly in rural areas. On top of this, women that have returned have not been paid, and are reliant on aid agencies to feed their families.

Outside of healthcare, women have been completely removed from the workplace, including in government, the judicial system, charities and aid agencies. Under the Karzai and Ghani governments the wages of women played an important role in providing for families through their increased workplace representation. With their right to employment suddenly removed, this has played a fundamental role in the causing poverty levels to rise throughout the country.

Third, the Taliban is desperate for international recognition, and that recognition and the aid that comes with it is tied to respecting human rights. The Taliban’s abhorrent treatment of women means that the frozen assets held by the US, and aid from the international community, will continue to be out of arms reach. This will leave the country short of much needed funds to avert the current crisis, leaving those most vulnerable, particularly women, at risk of starvation.

While the international community shares some blame for the humanitarian crisis by withholding assets and restricting the flow of aid, it is also the Taliban’s responsibility, under international law, to treat its citizens as per their human rights.

For this reason, if the Taliban is interested in allowing Afghanistan to rebuild, then it must realise that economic relief is directly tied to the human rights of women.

Allowing women to participate in society, through attending school and participating in the workforce, will have a net benefit for Afghan society by increasing education levels, workforce participation and, in the short term, reduce poverty levels.

Respecting the rights of women will also allow aid to flow into the country, helping alleviate the worst effects of the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the country and will allow aid agencies to monitor human rights throughout Afghanistan.

This creates an opportunity for the international community to pressure the regime into respecting the rights of women. This will help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and will go a long way to improving the lives of women and girls by giving them an opportunity to get an education, enter the workforce and participate in society.

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