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Tackling Pakistani madrassas: An uphill struggle

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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.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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India’s North East: A cauldron of resentment

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The writer is of the view that the recent clash between police force of Mizoram and Assam is not an isolated event. Similar incidents have happened in the past. They reflect that it is not hunky dory in India’s north east as BJP’s government would have us believe. New states in India were created willy-nilly pacify agitation. Yet the boundaries of the new states do not satisfy the people of the new states fully. They are a simmering cauldron of resentment against India’s central government. They love their traditions more than monolithic Hindutva. s

On July 10, 2021, five Assamese policemen were killed while proceeding towards Varengate (outsider gate). Amid fiery statements of chief ministers of Assam and Mizoram, police officials and politicians, it appeared that the two states would launch a full-fledged war against one another. This was not the first incident of its kind. There had been similar clashes in the past (1979, 1985 at Mirapani where 42 persons were burnt alive and 2014 clash).

Crux of the problem

Hasty creation of states to deal with separatism

When India came into being, many of it states were in grip of insurgencies. To pacify the separatist movements India hastily bowed to demand for creation of new states by reorganising the existing territories of bigger states. Many northeastern states were carved out of the state of Assam. Under the Indian constitution, secession is an offence but a new state could be created through reorganistion of the bigger state. Mizoram and Nagaland were created in haste to meet insurgents’ demand for greater self-representation.

Northeastern frontier Agency was converted into Arunachal Pradesh after the fall of Dacca. Indira Gandhi hoped that China would remain a silent spectator to her initiative as it did while East Pakistan was seceded through intervention in East Pakistan.

Linguistic states of Maharashtra and Gujarat were created mainly owing to agitation by Marathi and Gujarati speaking populations of Bombay.

In 1960, the Indian government accepted the Naga tribes’ demand for a separate state. Three districts of the state of Assam were detached from Assam to create Nagaland. It had no railway station or airport. So Dmapur also was truncated from Assam and included in Nagaland. The Dima Kachhari tribe that mostly inhabited Dimapur resented this decision. Any how the city is now a throbbing commercial centre.

In 1966, the state of Punjab was divided to create the hind-speaking state of Haryana. In 1971 Himachal Pradesh was created. Then in early 1970s, three new states were created: Jharkhand out of Bihar, Chhattisgarh out of Madhya Pradesh, and Uttaranchal out of Utter Pradesh. In 2014, Talangana was created out of Andhra Pradesh.

Nagaling (Naga homeland)

The Naga consider that the demarcation of their state is repugnant to demarcation done in 1875 by the British government. Their concept of Nagaland extends up to Nepal.

Citizenship Amendment Act and the national Register of Citizenship

These two laws are abhorred in many states of the North East.

Concluding remarks

The pitched battle between the Mizo and Assamese policemen exposed India’s “myth of unity in diversity”. Like the British rulers, India is holding together its union of states by use of brutal force and draconian laws. However sub-surface against the Indian government persists. Obviously people cherish their tradition culture and religions more than monolithic Hindutva. The BJP has set up a north East Democratic Alliance to forestall disputes between the northeastern states. This body utterly failed to predict or prevent the recent Mizo-Assam clash.

India understood that if the erstwhile East Pakistan supported the insurgencies in the North east, it will be impossible for India to keep them within Indian fold. As such, India aided and abetted insurgency in East Pakistan.

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Pakistani PM’s Interview with PBS News Hours on Afghanistan Issues

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In an interview with PBS News Hour, host Judy Woodruff asked PM Imran Khan multiple questions about Pakistan’s point of view for Afghanistan and its relationship with the United States.

When she asked the PM about his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, he said that Washington had really messed up the situation in Afghanistan. The US military failure is causing mess-ups in Afghanistan. “First of all, they tried to look for a military solution in Afghanistan when there was never one. And people like me, who know the history of Afghanistan and kept saying there isn’t a military solution, were called anti-American. I was called Taliban Khan,” said PM Imran. But now the US, after spending trillions of Dollars, sacrificing thousands of servicemen, and killing millions of innocent Afghans, destroying Afghanistan infrastructure, and damaging the whole country, realized that it is un-win able and withdrawing its troops in hap-hazard, causing a huge mess-up.

PM Imran also shared that despite the US being in Afghanistan for 20 years and 46 nations’ strong allied forces up to 150,000 troops, he does not know what the US objective was in the country. Only the destruction of a country, killing human beings, is beyond understanding.

“I don’t know what the objective was in Afghanistan, whether there was to have some nation-building, democracy, or liberate the women. Whatever the cause was, the way they went about it was never going to be the solution,” said PM Imran.

While the US is facing tremendous unrest and the civil war-like situation at home and yet wanted to interfere in other domestic issues. Beyond understanding!

He also lamented the way the US dealt with this solution. The PM explained that when the NATO forces had decided that there was no military solution, the bargaining power they had was gone.

“When they finally decided there is no military solution, unfortunately, the bargaining power of the American or NATO forces had gone,” said PM Imran. He added that the US should have gone for a political solution when 150,000 NATO troops were in Afghanistan.

“Once they had reduced the troops to barely 10,000, and when they gave the exit date, Taliban thought they had won,” said PM Imran. He added that it is difficult right now to ask the group to compromise or “force them” to take a political solution. “It’s tough to force them into a political solution because they [Taliban] think that they won,” said PM Imran.

PM rejects claims of Taliban sanctuaries.

The anchor also asked PM Imran about claims of Taliban sanctuaries being present in Pakistan and a report about 10,000 fighters crossing the border to help the group in Afghanistan.

“Judy, for a start, this 10,000 Taliban, or as the Afghan govt. Says, Jihadi fighters have crossed over, is absolute nonsense. Why don’t they give us evidence of this?” he said in response.

As a matter of fact, the Afghan Government is confused and helpless. After the foreign troop’s withdrawal, they are left at the mercy of the Taliban. The US has admitted its defeat, Afghan Government as a puppet Government has also been defeated. Taliban is the winner and in a position to dictate.

To the question about the safe-havens, PM Imran wondered where the sanctuaries are located in Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan is a victim of terrorism, and the recent terrorist attack in Pakistan is planned, managed, and originated from Afghanistan. Pakistan has provided irrefutable evidence on several occasions.

The premier explained that Pakistan is hosting three million refugees, Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the Taliban. He added that there are camps of 500,000 and 100,000 people or more. “Taliban are not some military outfit. They are normal civilians. If there are some civilians in these camps, how is Pakistan supposed to hunt these people down? How can you call them sanctuaries?” asked PM Imran.

The host had thrown this question to a follow-up on Washington and other organizations’ claims that Pakistan has helped the Afghan Taliban. The PM had told the host that the allegations were unfair and told her the history of the conflict. He explained that Pakistan had nothing to do with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York. The premier said that Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan, and no Pakistani was involved in the attack. “There were no militant Taliban in Pakistan, and no Pakistani was involved,” said PM Imran. He added that when Pakistan decided to join the US war on terror, the country was devastated as it lost 70,000 of its citizens, and $150 billion was lost in the economy.

Pakistan’s good and bad outcomes for Afghanistan

The host had also asked the PM about Pakistan’s good and bad outcomes for the Afghanistan conflict. PM Imran told the host that the good outcome for Islamabad would be if an inclusive government with all factions, including the Taliban, is formed in Afghanistan. He added that the worst situation for Pakistan would be a “protracted civil war” in Afghanistan.

In such a scenario, the PM said Islamabad would face two problems, firstly, of refugees, and secondly, the country fears that Pashtuns within Pakistan would be drawn to the conflict.

“What we fear is that a protracted civil war would bring more refugees, and you know our economic situation is not such that we can have another influx,” said the PM.

“Secondly, the worry is that the civil war will flow into Pakistan because Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns. Now there are more Pashtuns on our side of the border than in Afghanistan. And so the worry is if this goes on, the Pashtuns on our side will be drawn into it, and that is also the last thing we want,” said PM Imran.

US bases will make Pakistan a target: PM.

The PM also shared that having a US military presence in Pakistan would make the country a target. He told Woodruff that when Pakistan joined the war on terror, it lost 70,000 people and was on the verge of bankruptcy. “We do not have the capacity to have any more fighting within our border or any terrorism within our country,” said the PM. He reminded that at the height of the war on terror, there were suicide bombings taking place all over the country, and businesses and tourism had collapsed.

“If there is a conflict going on in Afghanistan and there are bases in Pakistan, we then become targets, and we will then become part of a conflict,” said PM Imran. The premier said that Pakistan wants to partner with the US in peace but not in conflict. He added that the last relationship between Islamabad and Washington was transactional. “Pakistan was more like a hired gun. The US says we gave you aid, and that’s why you were fighting this so-called war on terror,” said PM Imran. He added that the aid given by the US was “minuscule” compared to the cost of Pakistan’s participation in the conflict.

‘Afghanistan in this situation because of US military failure.’

PM Imran told the host that Pakistan could not do much if the Taliban take over Afghanistan as the military solution has already failed. “What are we supposed to do about it? Here was the US for two decades in Afghanistan trying to force a military solution. The reason why we are in this position now is that the military solution failed,” said PM Imran.

The premier repeated that the best choice that everyone has is that somehow a political settlement emerges in Afghanistan. He added that the Taliban sitting down with the Ashraf Ghani government to form an inclusive government was the best choice.

“Absolutely, there is nothing more we can do except push them as much as we can for a political settlement – that’s all,” the PM said when asked if Pakistan was willing to accept a Taliban government in Afghanistan. However, he said that all Pakistan could pray that the people of Afghanistan decide what Government they wish to have, “As far as Pakistan is concerned, we have done what we can,” said PM Imran.

It is well understood that the Taliban have won the war, and it is time to rule the country. The US has negotiated with the Taliban and recognized them as the actual power of pillar and real owner of Afghanistan. It is a practice that the winner will dictate the defeated ones. It is proved that the unholy and biased media projecting Taliban as terrorists, insurgents, and illegal outfits were right people and were freedom fighters and opposed their homeland’s foreign occupation. Suppose the Taliban were so bad, how the US negotiated with them and signed a peace agreement with them. It is indirectly recognition of the Taliban as legitimate rulers of the country.

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The Indo-US bonhomie: A challenge to China in the IOR

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The oceans have long been recognized as one of the world’s valuable natural resources, and our well-being is tied to the oceans. From providing minerals and food to coastal nations to serve as highways for seaborne trade, Oceans are highly-regarded in the geopolitics and geo-economics. In 2010, the global ocean economy was valued at $1.5 trillion, and by 2030, it is likely to surpass $3 trillion. Such a growing geostrategic and economic significance pit authoritative nations into the race. 

Bounded by Africa on the west, the Indian subcontinent on the North, Australia on the East, and the Antarctic Ocean on the South, the Indian Ocean is the third largest water body. Over the years, it has become an area of competition among Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi. China, the world’s second-largest economy, imports energy via sea lanes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), while India, an influential regional actor and competitor of China, has also significant reliance on the IOR for its trade. Therefore, the reliance of both countries on the safe transportation of resources is inevitable, and they seek dominance in this water body. The growing global leadership of China, and the Indian economic rise have heightened the strategic value of the IOR and both powers have locked horns in it.

The success of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative (BRI), which strives to enhance China’s economic dominance from East Asia to Europe, hinges on the IOR. The IOR provides China with critical sea trade routes to the Mideast and Africa through BRI’s flagship project: China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China, through BRI’s connectivity and economic potential, outweighs Indian influence in the IOR. Snaking its way from China’s western province Xinjiang to Gawadar port on the Arabian Sea, CPEC is a counterfoil to India, diminishing India’s strategic weight in the IOR. Therefore, India has an aversion to the CPEC because it ends the Chinese Strait of Malacca dilemma and makes its way through Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Having access to a port like Gawadar, China is likely to gain strategic and economic leverage in the region. Not only in India, but Beijing’s grandeur BRI is not well-received in the US as well. The world’s second-largest economy, China, aims to surpass the US economy in the coming years. On the accounts of the Chinese economic growth, the unipolar world order, once dominated by the US, has swapped its position with multipolar world. In addition, the US stakes are high in the IOR. With its interests in the Mideast, Africa, and Central Asia, the US is wary of China’s growing influence in the IOR. As a result, the US and India share a broader spectrum of mutual interests in the IOR.

New Delhi and Washington are enjoying rapprochement in their ties so as to limit China’s burgeoning influence. To materialize the quest of Washington about the freedom of navigation and maintaining open sea lanes, India spearheads the US paradigms in the IOR to curb China. For this purpose, India has eyed to magnify its naval capabilities and seeks partnership with many littoral-nations in the IOR. “Activating partnerships and expanding capabilities in the Indian Ocean are central to our quest for security,” says Indian Foreign Secretary. Indian bonhomie with Japan and Australia stands as the crux of New Delhi’s disposition to share warm ties with influential global actors. Australia, India, and Japan share the same US security umbrella: Checkmating the Beijing rise. These nations have translated their partnership in the Quad as a new feature of diplomacy to establish their authority in the Indo-Pacific region. Navies of India, the US, and Japan cooperate under the aegis of the trilateral Malabar Exercises, the most recent held in early November near Visakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. This time, Australia was also part of the exercise. The Indian Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), a naval information hub initiated by India, brings all Quad members under one roof to exchange vital maritime information in the IOR.  Australia and Japan recently posted liaison officers to the (IFC-IOR), where a US liaison officer has served since 2019.

India has a long aspiration to dominate the Bay of Bengal and prioritizes closer economic ties with South Asian states to balance China’s trade advantage. For its part, India is eager to visualize greater security cooperation among the littoral nations through BIMSTEC. The seven-member alliance among India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, and Nepal aims to accelerate members’ economic growth and social progress among members across multiple sectors. BIMSTEC is a platform accentuating Indian vigor and its manifests the Indian overtures against China in the IOR.

Sharing common goals in the IOR, the US perceives India as a significant ally in the region and strongly supports its maritime expansion. The rapprochement between the two sides has resulted in the significant naval build-up of Indian forces in the IOR. The construction of military bases, modernized equipment and fleets, new maritime assets, and the expansion of security ties are all part of New Delhi’s push to assert itself as the region’s leader. By acquiring ‘blue water’ capabilities, the Indian Navy aspires to undertake its traditional role, like ensuring the coastal defense of the country, providing sea-based nuclear deterrence (entailing its assured second-strike capability), projecting the nation’s soft power beyond its shores, and maximizing the sphere of influence in the region. India aims to become a 200-ship navy in the next decade. In the defense budget for the year 2015-16, 16% share has been allocated to the Navy.

The Indo-US cooperation poses a considerable challenge to China’s ingress in the IOR, and Pakistan is no exception. Moreover, their cooperation undermines the peace prospects and endangers stability in the IOR. Recently, the G7 summit concluded with an objective focusing to challenge China’s rise. Joe Biden Administration maintained a firm line against China. Therefore, in the near future, pining hopes for preemption of the competition among authoritative nations in the IOR would be the pie in the sky.

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