Tackling Pakistani madrassas: An uphill struggle
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.
Measurement of Performance Indices or Misrepresentation of India?
According to the recently published (May 24, 2023) Global Slavery Index 2023 (GSI), compiled by the Australian human rights organisation Walk Free, six members of the Group of 20 nations have the largest number of people in modern slavery – either in forced labour or forced marriage. India tops the list with 11 million followed by China with 5.8 million, Russia with 1.9 million, Indonesia with 1.8 million, Turkey with 1.3 million and the United States with 1.1 million.
From the appearance of the first sovereign credit ratings in the 1930s, there is now a plethora of rankings for various performance indicators. Rankings of states, for qualities (ex. transparency), activities (ex. press freedom), policies (ex.corruption), are being used to measure everything from ‘happiness’ to ‘democracy.’ Such ‘performance’ indicators have lately proliferated and strive to act as a pervasive sort of social pressure, almost exclusively for developing countries. These rankings tend to simplify a complex reality while attempting to appear objective.
The Walk Free foundation has been coming up with its Global Slavery Index (GSI) for more than a decade now. But its findings are not free of controversy. According to an article in Social Inclusion ‘The GSI aims to, among other objectives, recognize the forms, size, and scope of slavery worldwide as well as the strengths and weaknesses of individual countries. An analysis of the GSI’s methods exposes significant and critical weaknesses and raises questions into its replicability and validity.’ But what’s more troublesome is that the publicity given to the Index is leading to the ‘use of this poor data not only by popular culture and reputable magazines and news organisations […], but also by academic journals and high level policy makers […], which can lead to inaccurate policy formulation.’
Earlier, the 2023 ‘World Happiness Report’ was released and India was ranked at 126th position out of 137 countries. Published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network to the United Nations (UN) these rankings are based on data from the Gallup World Poll, which measures how happy citizens perceive themselves to be. Webster dictionary defines happiness as a state of well being and contentment so an obvious problem with measuring happiness is that it means something different to different people. Yet Finland, almost always, remains the happiest country in the world, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Israel. Apparently crisis ridden Sri Lanka and inflation hit Pakistan are happier than India. As is China despite the evidence of rare protests breaking out in multiple cities against the government’s zero-covid policy. And oddly ‘happiness’ even for countries at war, Russia and Ukraine, has been ranked higher than India in the World Happiness Report, with Russia ranked 70th and Ukraine ranked 92nd. During an event in Bengaluru, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar dismissed the report and said that he “does not understand the method” to find these indexes which are clearly “mind games.”
A similar gloomy picture is painted by other international think tanks. Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) had said that India has joined the ranks of Afghanistan, Brazil and Myanmar in “witnessing the most dramatic increases” in political polarisation. V-Dem categorises India as one of the “worst autocratisers” of the last decade. The annual report by Freedom House, the Washington-based pro-democracy think tank and watchdog rated India ‘partially free’ its report for a third straight year, with a cumulative score of 66 out of 100, on parameters such as political rights and civil liberties. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a division of UK’s Economist Group categorised India as a “flawed democracy” in its ‘Democracy Index.’ Is there robust evidence that democracy is in decline in India? What is the measure of democracy?
Sociologist Dr Salvatore Babones of the University of Sydney believes that India is an ‘extraordinarily successful democracy.’ At the India Today Conclave in Mumbai in November 2022, he said that, “India is the world’s biggest democratic success story. It is the only postcolonial well-institutionalised democracy.” He has argued that in a statistical sense, India being the world’s ‘largest’ democracy is irrelevant because democracy is unrelated to country size. The relevant factor for India is that it is the world’s ‘poorest’ democracy. If we take peaceful transfer of power with free and transparent elections, as the most basic measures of democracy then India can be categorised as a well institutionalised democracy. It is the only democracy in the world with a GDP for capital of less than about $10000 per head. Other democracies at these levels of income exist in eastern Europe which became independent only about three decades ago, and had to become democratic in order to join the European union. Truly, unambiguously indigenously developed democracies then exist in the West. India is also the world’s only post colonial state to remain a democracy throughout its entire 75 years of independence.
Indices have gained favour in the past two decades as indicators of regional and national growth of a country, and have become widely popular symbols of multidimensional welfare. These indices are built on a set of indicators using the most recent published articles. Data is then usually submitted for an handpicked ‘expert’ consultation to validate the ascribed rankings, but not necessarily alter them. Scandinavian countries Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands Sweden, Norway invariably top the indices. That poor, developing countries tend to be at the bottom of these rankings is no longer surprising. It becomes pertinent to ask whether these indices reflect generalisations based on a small number of widely published but non representative media articles?
Rankings have significant limitations when it comes to recognising the achievements of countries beyond the Anglosphere. For instance, the Global Hunger Index 2022 released by Concern Worldwide and Welt Hunger Hilfe, Non-Government Organisations from Ireland and Germany respectively, has ranked India at 107 among 121 countries. The report chooses to deliberately ignore efforts made by the Government to ensure food Security for the population especially during the Covid Pandemic. Three out of the four indicators used for calculation of the index are related to the health of Children and cannot be representative of the entire population. The fourth indicator estimate of proportion of undernourished population is based on an opinion poll conducted on a very small sample size of 3000, in which respondents were asked questions like ‘During the last 12 months, was there a time when, because of lack of money or other resources: You were worried you would not have enough food to eat? You ate less than you thought you should?’
Another example is the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2023 which has ranked India in 8th place. India is the only G20 country in the top ten climate change performers in this index the first three ranks were purposely kept left out as no country performed well enough to be placed as first, second or third, Denmark And Sweden were placed on fourth and fifth place respectively. Compare this to the Environment performance index 2022, measured by Yale and Columbia University which has ranked India at the very bottom of the list at 180, after Vietnam (178), Bangladesh (177), and Pakistan (176). The dichotomy in the ratings indicates a clear unscientific bias in the methodology.
Human Development Index for 2021-22 released by the UN developed program UNDP, India was ranked 132nd out of 191 countries. World Press Freedom Index, 2022 released by Reporters Without Borders ranked India at 150th out of 180 countries. Even Hong Kong, where Beijing has led a brutal crackdown to punish critics and silence dissenters, fundamentally altering the life for Hong Kongers, ranks above India at 148.
Organisations that build indexes are reluctant to share the data through which they arrive at their conclusions. The Union government tried to engage with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) which has ranked India on the 53rd spot and as a ‘flawed democracy’ seeking details on the parameters used in the rankings. However, according to a report in the media, the EIU did not share the methodology adopted to deduce the rankings. Most of these rankings can be criticised on methodological ground with the need to improve indicators and the underlying calculative operations. There is a possibility that growth systematically mis-measured or measured less reliability for developing countries. For instance, growth is more volatile in countries where agriculture constitutes a large part of the economy. Numerous index designs have been put forward, yet little is understood about their reliability. Ideally an index construction involves decisions related to indice selection, scale of analysis, measurement errors, data transformation and weighting – each of which is imbued with uncertainty due to decisions made by the index developer.
Rankings hold interest for multiple audiences, and whether we think they should, or not it seems there is an appetite for them. Factors like culture, language and resources strongly influence the rankings and buttress the dominance of the global north. The only remarkable thing about these global rankings is that they are so unremarkable, reinforcing our intuitive expectation that European, especially Scandinavian countries rank high, and countries from the global south figure lower. Suffice to say that they are neither scientific nor multilaterally validated.
Rashmi Mishra on the UK- India relationship and the role women are playing to strengthen international ties
Rashmi Mishra is the founder of Inspiring Indian Women, an NGO focusing on women empowerment globally. She has won several awards including Indian Achievers Award, HERA Goodwill Award, Global Goodwill Ambassadors, National Diversity Awards United Kingdom, FOX story India and various others. In this article, we have a conversation with Rashmi Mishra to understand more about the non-profit sector, women empowerment and the UK-India relationship.
What inspired you to start Inspiring Indian Women (IIW)?
IIW initially started as a platform to connect women, inspire, and support each other. The difficulties of finding a job according to qualifications and the impracticality of having domestic help at home make life in London frustrating and sometimes affect mental well-being. We thought that women needed to explore various possibilities and outlets to look for other options to satisfy their artistic or professional desires and break free from the monotony of life. The long and depressing winters add to their woes.
How can Indian women play a role in strengthening the UK-India relationship?
Indian women today are more career-conscious than ever before. As I write this, several Indian women have already made their mark in strengthening the Indo-UK relationship. Prominent among them are Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman, former Indian High Commissioners Smt. Ruchi Ghanshyam, Smt. Gaitrii Issar, and Smt. Poonam Gupta, the founder of PG Paper Company, whom I personally met at Pravasi Bharatiya Sammelan Indore. CA Bina Mehta, a partner at KPMG, Smt. Vishakha Mulye, ED ICICI Bank, Neelima Jain, CEO of EESL EnergyPro Assets Limited (EPAL), Energy Efficiency Service Limited’s (EESL) UK-based subsidiary. She is the force behind establishing EESL’s UK operations from the ground up and led the first-ever acquisition of an overseas company, Edina, by a state entity administered under the Indian government’s Ministry of Power. Nidhi Dua from Marks and Spencer is a committee member of the British Business Group and Confederation of British Industry. Laxmi Kaul, former head of CII UK, Ms. Nina Amin MBE, bringing investments into startups in both India and the UK, Mrs. Mira Misra Kaushik OBE by strengthening cultural ties, Ms. Prerna Bhardwaj, with experience in media, connecting the dots between both countries… The list is endless.
Your NGO deals with many women who have rebuilt themselves after their husbands’ deaths. What have you learned about resilience? How can the world be more resilient in the current Russia-Ukraine situation?
It requires great strength to be resilient. Easier said than done. I know just one thing: life doesn’t come to a standstill with a tragedy. Picking up the thread and walking on with the head held high is life. Struggles will be there, but ‘giving up’ is cowardice. Just look for that small twig to sail back. No looking back is the key. Visiting the past never helps. In the current Russia-Ukraine situation, the world must start reframing the education system by incorporating more life skills and life lessons of empathy, equality, togetherness, and brotherhood. The youth today are becoming more mechanical and money-minded. They are more focused on reaching their targets through shortcuts. The emphasis on human values in the education system has been lost.
What are some ways in which women can be empowered globally? Specifically when it comes to representation on international platforms like global parliaments or the UN?
Equal pay is first and foremost. Gender equality is a human right. More and more women must join politics as they need to be in policy making positions. The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 said it all very aptly – “DigitAll Innovation and Technology for Gender by embracing equity.” So much needs to be done, and at least society has started saying that only equal opportunities are not enough. A change in attitude at the workplace is pertinent. Unpaid caregiving jobs are not normal – women work all the time, but only some are salaried, sadly. Domestic abuse has risen since the pandemic; it is time to stand up for oneself. The silent revolution has begun.
How is IIW inspiring Indian women on a global scale?
There’s a lot to be done. A beginning has been made. We have already been connecting women from different countries. We need to organize events in collaboration with international organizations. We are in touch. Social media has shrunk the world, but we need to go beyond with exchange programs and international exhibitions and conferences.
How can India be more empowering towards women in the country?
By bringing up both sons and daughters in the same way. When parents start saving for both their son and daughter’s education and not just for the daughter’s marriage and the son’s education. Sons too need to learn cooking and cleaning the house, just as daughters are encouraged to learn. The notion of “papa going to the office and mama cooking” needs to be eradicated from young minds.
Your organization is also recognizing trans women and awarding them for their work. What can India do for trans rights to make the country more gender equal?
Firstly, they need to be considered equal. The law needs to include them in society. Awareness is the key; schools must include the third gender in books. As most have to drop out of education in the early days of growing up due to the stigma attached, they end up in low-class jobs, begging, and being looked down upon.
Any plans for IIW’s expansion?
Definitely, we have already started IIW Sweden. We have IIW Netherlands, though it is a little dormant at the moment. Suggestions are coming to start IIW Poland. IIW intends to do lots of groundwork in India and hence is registered under a section 8 company in India. We already have different chapters in India: IIW Delhi, IIW Chennai, IIW Mumbai, IIW Bihar, and IIW Guwahati. We aim to connect women globally and support them in whatever way possible. We have also started an e-commerce platform, Eutsav.org, to strengthen women entrepreneurs and help them reach a bigger clientele. The purpose is to make more and more women, especially from rural India, self-reliant.
The Need for the Next SAARC Summit
Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Sanjana Chib*
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) came into existence on the 8th of December, 1985, with eight member states namely, Bangladesh, Bhutan India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, (which became a member-state in the year 2007) Considering the approach followed by other bodies such as that of ASEAN, which might soon start addressing their differences in an “ASEAN way” i.e. resolving their internal matters amicably instead of approaching the courts, SAARC also follows an institutional framework that regularly holds summits to discuss the various alternatives regarding dispute settlement and cooperation amongst its members.
The meetings of the Heads of the States or Governments of the Member States known as the Summit is the highest decision-making forum of SAARC. Generally, SAARC organizes Summits biennially through its Member States in an alphabetical order, and the hosting country of the Summit assumes the Chair of the Association and its importance can be acknowledged by the key outcome of its summit, which takes place in the form of a Declaration and includes decisions/ directives of the leaders to strengthen and consolidate regional cooperation in different areas being pursued under the patronage of SAARC. Moreover, the Summit also considers and approves reports of the Ministerial Meetings.
The 18th SAARC Summit was held in Kathmandu, Nepal and its theme was “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity.” Ever since then there has been no successful attempt to schedule the next summit, mainly due to lack of consensus between the member-states. As far as India is concerned, the major reason behind its non-participation is the Uri- Terrorist Attack, which was alleged to have Pakistani involvement, and that is the reason why it turned down Pakistan’s proposal to attend the 19th SAARC Summit virtually if it does not want to be physically present in Islamabad.
SAARC has held only 18 Summits since its inception, which is a violation of Article 3 of the SAARC Charter itself. The prevailing political problems and bilateral disputes of respective member-states mainly caused delays. As of now, SAARC has conducted 18 Summits, ten in the first 15 years of its existence (1986 – 2000) and eight in next 15 years (2001 – 2016) which highlight that frequent cancellations have occurred over the last 15 years.
The experience of last 35 years suggests that, SAARC as an institution cannot be a tool for “regional integration” due to Indo-Pak Rivalry as their rivalry is so profound that it cannot be addressed in terms of a regional solution, which happens to be the major reason for not conducting the summit. However, some of other the reasons for not holding the SAARC Summit are also inter-state problems and bilateral tensions.
In the year 2020, Mr. Nilambar Acharya, Nepal’s envoy to India made a statement that “SAARC is alive and there will be a summit in future”, which came as a ray of hope soon after PM Narendra Modi tweeted the leaders about creating a strategy to deal with the situation of covid-19. Later, the organization was all set to conduct a summit in New York next year, which was later cancelled due to the objections of certain member states regarding the participation of Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.
A successful SAARC Summit can be conducted in future if its member states work towards resolving their bilateral disputes and other internal problems such as political instability, general elections, insurgencies, and economic recession, lack of adequate infrastructure and resources on the part of some members to organize the summit, which is why its leaders should consider amending the charter and make it mandatory to hold summits at a permanent venue such as that of the SAARC Secretariat on an annual basis which will make things much convenient for the member states and increase the chances of organizing the summit.
*Sanjana Chib is a Law Student at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, India.
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