This is an edited version of remarks by James M. Dorsey at the launch in Islamabad on 30 January 2018 of ‘The Role of Madrassas: Assessing Parental Choice, Financial Pipelines and Recent Developments in Religious Education in Pakistan and Afghanistan,’ an extensive study by three Pakistani think tanks backed by the Danish Defense College.
In many ways, the question whether madrassas or religious seminaries contribute to instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan goes far beyond an evaluation of the content of what students are taught and how they are being taught. In fact, it could be argued that the train has left the station and that there are no magic wands or simple administrative and regulatory fixes to address problems associated with madrassas. To make things worse, those problems are not restricted to madrassas; they also are prevalent in the public education system.
Irrespective of which of the spectrum of estimates of the number of madrassas in Pakistan one accepts, fact of the matter is that many, if not the majority, of madrassas do not produce graduates who have learnt to think critically. Rote education produces the opposite in a 21st century world in which critical thinking is ever more important.
Moreover, generations of graduates coupled with successive governments willing to play politics with religion and debilitating conflict have helped create a significant segment of Pakistani society that is ultra-conservative, intolerant, anti-pluralistic, and often supremacist.
It is a segment that easily can be whipped up to adopt militant causes as recent protests as well as the popularity of militant groups among both Barelvis and Deobandis have demonstrated. Which raises the question of whether madrassas alleged links to militancy is the core issue, or only part of a far more fundamental issue: the fact that madrassas more often than not teach an ultra-conservative worldview that with a solid grounding and resonance in society is being reinforced and reproduced.
What that means is that the problem is far greater than ensuring registration of madrassas or simply ensuring that include modern science alongside religious subjects in their syllabi. The magnitude of the problem is illustrated in a madrassa in the city of Jang that has a state-of-the-art computer lab. Access to the lab and computer lessons are voluntary, yet only a mere 16 percent of the school’s 300 students are interested or avail themselves of the opportunity in a world in which a baby’s first demand is an iPhone. Visits to other madrassas elsewhere in the country show that at times English lessons that are on the curriculum are just that. They exist on paper rather than in practice. The language classes that do exist often produce anything but English speakers or children with even a rudimentary knowledge of the language.
The question of the context in which madrassas operate is also illustrated by the fact that foreign funding is not what keeps the bulk of the madrassas afloat. Foreign funding is no longer crucial. That is not surprising. Four decades after Gulf states, and to a lesser degree Iraq in the past, and Iran on the other side of the equation, poured huge amounts into ultra-conservative religious education, a world has been created that leads it own life, develops its own resources, and is no longer dependent on external funding and support. It’s the nature of the beast.
Former Federal Secretary Tanseem Noorani asserted as much as recently as last year when he noted that the number of madrassas was increasing faster in rural areas of Pakistan than regular public schools. There is indeed little doubt that madrassas fill a gap in a country with a broken education system as well cater to a demand for a religious education. And there is no doubt that there are inside and outside of government valiant efforts to fix the system. Hundreds of madrassas have been closed because of links to militancy or other irregularities. But there is equally no doubt that inroads made by ultra-conservatism not only in segments of the public but also significant elements of the bureaucracy cast doubt on the degree to which fixing the system can succeed.
There has been much debate and speculation about Saudi funding. The issue of Saudi funding has much to do with the broader issue of ultra-conservatism as a factor that pervades the discussion of madrassas and more broader trends in Pakistani society. Popular perception is that Saudi funding was focused on Wahhabism, the specific strand of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism prevalent in the kingdom.
In fact, it was not, despite Saudi links and support to Wahhabi groups like Ahl-e-Hadith in Pakistan. Saudi funding and support focused on ultra-conservatism irrespective of what specific strand of Islam as long as it was anti-Shiite, anti-Ahmadi and anti-Iran. It was that broader focus that allowed the Saudis to, for example, support Deobandis, something that a singular focus on Wahhabism would have precluded.
Not only was Saudi funding broader focused, it also was in a majority of cases hands off. In other words, a majority of Saudi-supported in Pakistan as elsewhere across the globe, were more often than not, not Saudi-managed nor was a Saudi anywhere in sight, even if textbooks, Qur’ans and other materials were Saudi-supplied.
Moreover, official sources will never be comprehensive in documenting funding particularly from foreign sources. That is all the truer in countries where financial controls and their implementation is lax. In the case of Saudi funding of madrassas, this means that money flows are often not transparent and not necessarily recorded and when recorded not made available for scrutiny. As a result, tracking Saudi funding may never produce a comprehensive picture and will often rely on anecdotal evidence or unofficial documentation provided either by the donor or the recipient.
No doubt, far less Saudi funding is available today, but that there is, yet, no indication that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vague notion of a more moderate Islam means a restructuring of the kingdom’s funding targets.
The effort to rewrite Saudi textbooks that are used in the kingdom itself could indicate that change is coming although the extent of that revision remains to be seen. Recent statements by the World Muslim League, a major vehicle of Saudi funding, about the need for inter-faith dialogue and recognition of the Holocaust point in that direction.
Yet, the record of the first three years of the era of the Salmans, King Salman and his powerful son, Prince Mohammed, also has markers that would suggest the opposite. It may be that funding abroad will be more focused on what serves Saudi efforts to confront Iran, which would put Pakistan, with its borders with Iran and the Islamic world’s largest Shia minority, in the bull’s eye. It would also mean that moderation may be less evident in what the Saudis choose to support.
Over the past two decades, repeated efforts have been made to regulate and reform madrassas even if implementation and impact has been lagging. That lag cannot simply be attributed to a lack of resources and/or capabilities.
Reform depends on political will and is obstructed by resistance from powerful and entrenched ultra-conservative circles whose tentacles reach beyond the ulema and the administrators of madrassas. With other words, it is the fallout not only of Saudi and Gulf funding but of government and state policies that allowed ultra-conservatism along a broad spectrum to flourish in Pakistan. The issue here is not simply militancy, it is ultra-conservatism that is not by definition or necessarily politically militant.
This is nowhere more evident than in the fact that the problem is not restricted to madrassas but is far more universal. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported as recently as two years ago that Pakistani public school textbooks contained derogatory references to religious minorities.
The report asserted that “in public school classrooms, Hindu children are forced to read lessons about the conspiracies of Hindus toward Muslims’, and Christian children are taught that ‘Christians learned tolerance and kind-heartedness from Muslims.”
It went on to say that “this represents a public shaming of religious minority children that begins at a very young age, focusing on their religious and cultural identity and their communities’ past history.”
The report noted that a review of the curriculum demonstrated that public school students were being taught that “religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus, are nefarious, violent, and tyrannical by nature.”
Addressing the issues at the core of Pakistan’s religious and public education system is going to take out-of-the-box thinking that devises ways of drawing in important segments of the ultra-conservative community rather than alienating them. A turn-around will only truly work if it has buy-in rather than projects a sense of imposition.
For that to happen, government policy and the implementing bureaucracy will have to have a broad vision: one that initiates and manages a broad range of policies and processes that seek to foster values that are at odds with ultra-conservatism such as tolerance, pluralism, and freedom of expression rather than just pay lip service to them. It’s not clear that Pakistan has the political will for this, let alone that the building blocks for such policies are in place.
Pakistan not a Threat for Israel: Clearing Misconceptions
Ever since 1998; the beginning of Pakistan’s nuclear age, the state’s self-defense mechanism has been a source of worry and unrest for India and the US. Both these states never really accepted that a small state like Pakistan could develop the prestigious asset and was now well capable of defending itself against external threats. US opposed the program on the grounds that it had been tested after the signing of NPT and that it is an “illegitimate” program. Their basic concern was Pakistan not being a party to NPT and US non-proliferation efforts failing. India, though very much against the program, could not openly oppose it on the same grounds because its own Nuclear Program had the same issue i.e. it was tested after the signing of NPT and they had also not signed the treaty.
There are a lot of ambiguities surrounding Pakistan’s nuclear program which are there intentionally for the benefit and security of the program and state. However, there is one thing which has been kept very clear since day one and that is the Indo centric nature of Pakistan’s nuclear program. The program was developed because the conventionally strong next door neighbor had developed their program. Pakistan, in an attempt to ensure territorial security, had to develop its own program as well. US, China, Russia, France or the UK were never a threat to Pakistan nor was Pakistan on their attack agenda. India on the other hand was in close territorial proximity, a historic enemy, conventionally stronger and now also a nuclear power. After evaluating all these factors any national strategist would suggest a nuclear program for Pakistan and that is exactly what the state did.
There have been news in an Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, that Pakistan is more of a threat to Israel than Iran. This was published on 20 May, 2018. The grounds for this allegation have been identified as Pakistan’s growing arsenal and other similar reasons which have always been popular in the western policy circles. Iran, a conventional enemy, one with which there have been numerous conflicts, has been ruled out as a threat to Israel since they do not have a nuclear arsenal.
However, there are many concrete facts that have been ignored in this propagating debate. For instance Pakistan has had no wars with Israel. Both the states have never even been on the verge of an all-out war. The states have never even had a conflict that could’ve led to war. Although Iran does not have a nuclear arsenal at present but that did not stop the states from indulging into conflicts before and although initiating a nuclear war might not be a possibility for Iran but a conventional war is very much within their skill set.
Pakistan is already indulged in a two front defense strategy on its eastern and western borders. The Taliban threat from the west and the ever present Indian threat from the east, particularly along the line of control is already consuming most of the state’s energy, attention and resources. Under such circumstances, jumping into any sort of venture as far as Israel without any apparent or direct conflict seems like an amateur move which is not expected from Pakistan whatsoever. If any linkages are being made based on the fact that Iran and Israel have cordial ties then they are weak to begin with. On the other hand India and Iran have more than friendly ties and India’s nuclear arsenal is growing rapidly with the US help. However, this does not mean that just because India is a nuclear state and a friend of Iran, it will be inclined to attack Israel.
Pakistan’s nuclear program is solely for the safety and security of the nation against any external threat. The program is not for the state to pick and choose enemies and start non-existing conflicts. That is definitely not how Pakistan intends to use its resources and deviate from the real agenda which is to protect the state of Pakistan. The only condition under which Pakistan would use its nuclear weapons against any state would be if they choose to attack the territory of Pakistan in a nuclear or non-nuclear manner. The state has been absolutely clear about this from the very beginning of its nuclear era.
Behind Indo-Pacific Vision
Mike Pompeo’s recent speech titled, ‘America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision – at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum’ at the US Chamber of Commerce, Washington DC has been carefully observed across Asia. Beijing has understandably, paid close special attention to it. Pompeo emphasized on the need for greater connectivity within the Indo-Pacific, while also highlighting the role which the US was likely to play (including financial investments to the tune of 113 Million USD in areas like infrastructure, energy and digital economy). The US Secretary of State while stating that this vision was not targeted at anyone, he did make references to China’s hegemonic tendencies, as well as the lacunae of Chinese connectivity projects (especially the economic dimension).
The Chinese reaction to Pompeo’s speech was interesting. Senior Chinese government officials were initially dismissive of the speech, saying that such ideas have been spoken in the past, but produced no tangible results.
An article in the Global Times ‘Indo-Pacific strategy more a geo-political military alliance’ response is significant. What emerges clearly from this article is that Beijing is not taking the ‘Indo-Pacific vision’ lightly, and neither does it rule out the possibility of collaboration. The article is unequivocal, in expressing its skepticism, with regard to the geo-political vision of the Indo-Pacific vision. Argues the article:
While the geopolitical connotation of the strategy may lead to regional tensions and conflicts and thus put countries in the region on alert
It is optimistic with regard to the geo-economic dimension, saying that this would be beneficial, and would promote economic growth and prosperity. What must be noted is that, while the US vision for ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been put forward as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the article also spoke about the possible complementarities between the US vision for ‘Indo-Pacific’ and China’s version of BRI. While Mike Pompeo had spoken about a crucial role for US private companies in his speech, the article clearly bats in favor of not just between Indian, Japanese, Chinese, US governments as well as companies. This is interesting, given the fact that China had gone to the extent of dubbing the Indo-Pacific vision as the foam on the sea” “that gets attention but will soon dissipate”
While there is absolutely no doubt, that there is immense scope for synergies between the Indo-Pacific vision, and BRI especially in the economic sphere. China’s recent openness towards the Indo-Pacific vision is welcome, but one of the propelling factors is the growing resentment against the economic implications of some BRI projects. While in South Asia, Sri Lanka is a classical example of China’s debt trap diplomacy, where Beijing provides loans at high interest rates (China has taken over the strategic Hambantota Project, since Sri Lanka has been unable to pay Beijing the whopping 13 Billion USD). Even in ASEAN grouping, countries are beginning to question the feasibility of BRI projects, Malaysia which shares close economic ties with Beijing is reviewing certain Chinese projects (this was one of the first steps undertaken by Mahathir Mohammad after taking over the reigns as Prime Minister of Malaysia).
Second, that while for long the Indo-Pacific Vision has been dubbed as a mere ‘expression’ and one of the criticisms has been a lack of gravitas in the economic context (and even now 113 Million USD is not sufficient). Developments over recent months, including the recent speech, indicate that The Department of State seems to be keen to dispel this notion that the Indo-Pacific narrative is bereft of substance. Here it would be pertinent to point out, that Pompeo’s speech was followed by an Asia visit (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore).
Countries which are key stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific narrative need to keep in mind the following:
US needs to walk the course and apart from investing, more it needs to think of involving more countries, including Taiwan and more South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific partnership.
Second, the Indo-Pacific speaks in favor of democracy as well as greater integration, but not only are countries becoming more inward looking, even their stand on democracy, and Human Rights is ambiguous. Japan is trying to change its attitude towards immigration, and is at the forefront of promoting integration and connectivity within the Indo-Pacific. Neither US, nor India, Japan or Australia have criticized China for its excesses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.
Finally, there is scope for China to be part of the Indo-Pacific, but it needs to look at certain projects beyond the rubric of the BRI. A perfect instance is the Bangladesh China, India Myanmar BCIM Corridor which India was willing to join, but China now considers this project as a part of BRI.
In conclusion, Beijing can not be excluded from the ‘Indo-Pacific’ narrative, but it can not expect to be part of the same, on its own terms. It is also important, for countries like US and India to speak up more forcefully on issues (within their domestic contexts, as well as external) pertaining to Freedom of Speech, Human Rights and immigration issues, given that all these are essential for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’
Chimeras and Realities of the Indo-Pacific Partnership
The new American initiative for the creation of the Indo-Pacific Partnership (IPP) has grabbed the spotlight in many political discussions of late. Although the idea to set up such a forum was proposed at the end of 2017 and to this day has been no more than a general slogan, now the Trump administration seems set to stake on it. Why?
As a reminder I would like to point out that on May 30 the US Secretary of Defense announced the renaming of the Pacific Command into the Indo-Pacific Command (although the Command’s responsibility zone a priori included the Indian Ocean waters).
A few days later, at the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) conference in Singapore, the idea of IPP was spelled out by the American side, with an emphasis on the aspects of regional security. When commenting on the change of the name of the American command, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked that for India the unification of the Indian and Pacific oceans into a single geographic array looked “natural”.
The practical implementation of the IPP strategy will most likely be carried out both through the strengthening of US bilateral relations with countries of the region and through the creation of multilateral cooperation formats. The most important of these cooperation initiatives is the so-called. “Quadro”, which is designed to bring together the four “democracies” of the Indo-Pacific region – the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
It is believed that the United States, Australia, Japan and India, united in the Quadro, will consider the two oceans a single strategic space. Since 2016, the United States, India and Japan have been conducting joint naval exercises “Malabar”. Washington is clearly giving New Delhi ever more attention, counting on India as one of the future regional security poles, along with Japan, Australia and its other allies.
The feasibility evaluation of IPP was proposed in the concept of “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy”, FOIP). And the recent report of the US National Security Strategy states that “in the Indo-Pacific region, there is a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of the world order.”
Apparently, this is about China. Therefore, the idea of IPP, which is motivated by the value and geostrategic approach, did not cause immediate enthusiasm from the American allies in the region.
Assessing the US initiative to establish IPP, Japanese experts, for example, say that Japan has no objections in principle to such an initiative as long as it is “transparent and inclusive”. To this, they add that this initiative can play a role in the development of interregional relations involving East Asia, South Asia, Africa and Eurasia; the main thing is that it should not be directed against China, since Japan is interested in China’s sustained development and Japan-China relations.
In response, South Korea argues that it is too early to suggest a full approval for the IPP as this initiative has been put forward in the form of a general slogan. Seoul has yet to understand what it is and needs more time to examine it in more detail. If it turns out that the initiative aims to deter China, participation in it of the Republic of Korea will be a “difficult choice” to make.
According to experts of the US Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Indo-Pacific region may account for half of the global economy within decades, but this requires investments of almost $ 26 trillion. Now it is obvious that from the point of view of trade and economic cooperation, the IPP is set to replace the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), which Donald Trump chose to reject, and offer an alternative. US Secretary of Commerce William Ross explains in this respect that TPP agreements require too much effort to conclude and too complicated: “With such major geopolitical phenomena as the TPP, it is impossible to carry out a controlled experiment.”
Verbally, Washington welcomes China’s contribution to regional development, emphasizing that IPP will not be aimed at containing China or opposing China’s Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, the emphasis is put on the need to adhere to “international standards of transparency, the rule of law and sustainable financing”.
However, in practice, the main reason underlying IPP is the attempt to conduct a “controlled” geostrategic and geoeconomic experiment, by constructing a partnership framework artificially, in the American interests, without taking into account the interests of potential partners who are not interested in political or economic deterrence of China
Supporters of conventional geopolitical approaches say that the creation of IPP means the advance of the US into Eurasia still further from the east to the west by strengthening ties with predominantly “naval” powers in the eastern and southern peripheries of the Eurasian continent (from South Korea to countries of the Arabian Peninsula) and with island states of the Pacific (from Japan to New Zealand). The main purpose of the IPP is the political and military-strategic deterrence of China, the creation of a rigid “framework” that would prevent Beijing from assuming a dominant position in the region.
Whatever the case, American attempts to artificially “patch together” the IPP “from the material at hand” indicate the need for the Russian diplomacy to boost efforts to cement the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership by developing security mechanisms and fostering cooperation in the land areas of the Eurasian “heartland”.
In the first place, such mechanisms involve the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), measures towards linking the Eurasian integration and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and the consistent implementation of the Russian initiative to establish the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP).
India’s participation in these organizations and initiatives is a matter of special concern, while the three-party consultative arrangement Russia-India-China needs further strengthening as well.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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