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.