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Tackling Pakistani madrassas: An uphill struggle

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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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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South Asia

Is PTM Genuine to its Cause?

Syed Nasir Hassan

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Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) v/s Sate is a fiery tale which none can anticipate how it will end. Sparked from the extra judicial murder of model aspirant Naqeeb Ulllah Mahsud on January 13, 2018, the movement continue to get a constant hype on the political spectrum of Pakistan. Initially named Mahsud Tahafuz Movement turned into Pashtun Tahafuz Movement when the case was put forward to the court and Rao Anwar was arrested. However, things got transformed as PTM started taking a constant nudge with the state. From the protest in front of press club in Islamabad, in 2018 to different rallies across country things shifted vigorously. PTM’s defiance is mainly pointed at criticizing the military institution and falsely blaming the institution for their plight. But the question rises that is PTM another mainstream political movement subjected for the elites rather than addressing the actual issue? And are they trying to internationally politicize the issue in order to demoralize the efforts of Pakistan?

On April 29, 2019, DG ISPR Maj Gen. Asif Ghafoor, military spokesperson, addressed PTM leadership and apprised them that the time has come when legal actions is mandatory to be taken against them. He further claimed that the financial records makes the existence of PTM skeptical as they are directly being funded by the foreign factions from neighboring countries  for their protests and rallies.  He was also of the view that PTM is being used by the foreign factions to instigate instability when Pakistan has achieved relative peace. However, the fact should not be neglected that the Government of Pakistan and military establishment acknowledges the demands put forward by the leadership of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. At various points both, government and military, tried to engage with them in a collaborative manner. Recently on April 16, 2019, Senate Special Committee met the PTM leadership along with the MNA Mohsin Dawar. Even before, when the movement was in its early phase military was the first one to engage with them. When a request was put forward by the PTM leaders to meet military in order to express their grievances, it was agreed. Meeting was held between PTM delegation of 15 members and DG, ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor on Feb 08, 2018, in which apart from primary demand of justice for Naqeeb Mahsud there were other 4 demands. The military showed consensus on all of them. But the duality of the PTM should not be unremembered as on one side it engages with the government and the military but at the same time the constant barraging on the state and its institutes continues through social media. Things got more complicated as the tone of PTM got discordant day by day. The relentless spewing of hate and impudent comments against the state and its institution clearly show as on whose side PTM is. Movement is kind of drifting away from the true cause when the anti-state and separatist slogans and hymns are openly vocalized in the rallies and are now directed to demoralize the standards of army rather than demanding the rights.

With constant efforts from both government and military the PTM appears reluctant to develop a consensus. Keeping this whole saga in mind One might consider that either PTM leaders are not well negotiator or they don’t want to negotiate and the picture is much larger then it seems.

In 2018, a commission was also formed to facilitate PTM which included high ranks from the military and reputable civilians. State was persistence in facilitating the PTM grievances. DG ISPR also highlighted in his briefing that in order to remove landmines, a team was formed and is currently putting every effort at their disposal. The team had cleared 45 percent of the area and in pursuit of the task 101 Jawans had lost their lives. State constantly acknowledges the demands of PTM but PTM and its virtual diaspora have failed to acknowledge the efforts made by the state.

Pashtun makes up to 15% of the total population of Pakistan. What will happen if this number of population, a province indeed is brought in confrontation with the state? It will be enough to vandalize the socioeconomic fabric of Pakistan. Pashtuns of Pakistan have always been delicate segment of Pakistan as they were in the crossfire between Pakistan’s efforts against eradicating terrorism. It makes them soft target and vulnerable to be used by animosities against Pakistan. The point to ponder is that despite the efforts, and acknowledgement of their grievances by the state why this matter is getting more intense whereas the fact should not be forgotten that both parties are on same line in terms of addressing the problem. The only way this can be resolved is when the PTM stop being patsy against Pakistan and show real concern to give solace to the Pashtun community rather than exploiting their grievances

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RSS: Grim Reality under the Secular Veil of India

Syed Nasir Hassan

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Religious extremism is not something novel to mankind. Between 132-136 CE, Romans faced the confrontation with the Jews. A Jew extremist, Simon Bar Kokhba, led the revolt against Romans known as Kokhba Revolution. He succeeded in establishing a Jew state which lasted for just three years, ultimately falling again in to Roman hands.

Under constitutional veil almost every other nation has some sort of religious or ethno extremist factions in their ranks with mass support. India too, which claims to be a true secular model in the subcontinent has their own version of extremist militia and what is worth worrying is that it is well organized and well structured.

RSS or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is an extremist Hindu vigilante militia which is being nurtured by many political hands. It came into existence in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar – a Hindu nationalist. Initially it was established to retaliate against the British raj and Muslims and unite Hindus to devise a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation) but in post-independence scenario it became a blot on the secular veil of India. Indian Constitution makes it a secular country but RSS finds it against the norms of Hindustan. It is not the RSS which shifted its discourse but it was India which became a secular state by constitution. Even before the inception of RSS various Hindu nationalist emphasized on the existence of solely Hindu nation. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar,the founder of Hindu nationalist ideology Hindutva (an ideology which aims to form hegemony of Hindus) stated that there is a dire need of a solely Hindu nation.

RSS was banned three times in its post-independence continuity. First it was banned in 1948 after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu nationalist. The interesting fact is the man named Nathuram Godse, who murdered Gandhi, was not an active RSS member at that time but was once. In 1975 RSS came into scrutiny again when Indra Gandhi banned extremist organizations and imposed emergency across the country, and then in 1992 when dispute over Babri masjid erupted and it got demolished.

But what is making the organization function with full momentum? The organization has a fully functional website where one can recruit itself in the organization. Its proper hierarchical order makes it worth worrying as there is a National leader and then there are Regional leaders to oversee the local dealings. It also conducts daily quasi military exercises in parks and open spaces. On many occasions, the members of RSS were involved in the lynching of Muslims and lower casts Hindus. RSS’s Cow protection squad was constantly involved in various incidents during Modi’s reign.

Indian Prime minister, Narendra Modi, during an interview revealed that the personality and the discipline he has, RSS played a major role in shaping it. He also said that he became part of the organization at very young age. RSS also played major role in the putting the throne of Delhi under the Modi’s feet and is again playing a major role in running his election campaign for upcoming elections.

The institutionalized structure of the RSS makes it unique as it has a Cow protection squad, women wing, Labor union and a farmer union to outreach mass population. On its website, they claim that they have more than 50,000 shakhas, a Hindi word for branches, in villages and different cities across the country. Utar-pardesh, a city with largest population in India and major electoral club in the lower house; it is reported that there are 8000 shakahs only in UP which are there obviously to influence the elections and win majority in the house.

Embedded hate against Muslims and other minorities is not something new, in fact, it is in the core beliefs of the organization. M.S Golwalkar, the second Sarsanghchalak (head of RSS) wrote a book named Bunch of Thoughts which comprised of the lectures he had given to shakhas over the country. In his book he wrote that internal elements pose far greater threat to national security than outside aggressor. Golwalkar than identified three major “Internal Threats: i) Muslims; ii) Christians; iii) Communists. Not just this, in an article published in THE HINDU on November 26,2006 it was revealed that the murder of Mahatma Gandhi was somehow celebrated by the RSS. Moreover, giving reference to the secret documents which he had seen the writer divulged that Golwalker had called a meeting on December 6, 1947, where RSS workers of Govardhan, a town not very far from Delhi. As per the police report regarding the meeting, assassination of the leading persons of the Congress was discussed to create terror and panic among the public and to get hold over them. Just after two days. Golwalkar again addressed several thousand RSS volunteers at the Rohtak Road Camp, Delhi. The police reporter notified that the RSS leader had clearly said that Sangh would not rest content until it finishes Pakistan and if anyone was a hindrance in their way they would not spare them either whether it was Nehru’s regime or any other.

Having such militant Hindu organizations flexibly working without any state censorship and proliferating into Indian society is a threat to Indian secular dream. Aimed at making India a purely Hindu state such far-right groups in subcontinent will make exclusive societies rather than inclusive. Intra-state tensions will continue to mount. Which will create the so-called nonpolitical groups like RSS propagating into the Indian society through political interference and can make India’s future bleak. With such intra-state terror groups Indian vision for secular and inclusive India will remain a chimera.

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IMF bailout package and public opinion

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The 22nd bailout package for Pakistan at its final stages. There exists a mix of public opinion on this package, some are in favor and some differ. Both lobbies have own reasons and strong justifications, which makes a common man even more confused.

PM Imran Khan was criticizing previous governments for seeking IMF bailout packages in the past and expressed that he will not go to IMF, and may prefer suicide over begging. In the early few months of his Government, he was hesitant to go to the IMF and tried his best to seek help from friendly countries alternatively. Some of the friendly countries extended helping hands too, which includes Saudi Arabia, UAE, and China.

But the economic situation was so serious and dangerous that the country was at the edge of collapse or default. Still some of his advisors of the opinion that there exist other options instead of going to IMF. The deal under consideration is US Dollars 6 billion over a period of 39 months. It means less than 2 billion a year, which it really too little. If we control our imports of luxury items and un-necessary item, we may reduce our import bill by US Dollars 5 Billion easily. Or with a little bite of our efforts, we may be able to increase our exports by US Dollars 5 Billion easily. Some experts are thinking only for US Dollars 2 billion a year, we should not accept the harsh terms and conditions of IMF.

In the 7 decades history of Pakistan, 21 prgrammes of IMF were not good enough to make Pakistan a sustainable economy. Why one should expect, this 22nd will do something good. During the previous 21 programmes, Pakistan was a very close non-NATO ally of USA. Pakistan was on the right side of the US, a partner in Cold War Era, Front Line State in War on Terror. Politically, Pakistan was one of the favorite nations of the US and secured all possible support.  But today the situation may be rather different, as, after the Abbottabad Incident and Salala Incident in 2011, Western World has almost written-off Pakistan. USA has signed Major Defense Partner (MDP) agreement with India. The USA has created the Indo-Pacific Alliance with India, Japan, and Australia, to counter China, where Pakistan is engaged with China under BRI/ CPEC.

Against the tradition, people of Pakistan have voted Imran Khan, who so ever was given ticket of PTI, the public has voted him or her blindly in good faith & trust to Imran Khan. A few of his candidates might not be having very high capabilities or very good reputation, but, the public has trusted Imran Khan blindly. Imran Khan is the third most popular leader in Pakistan, after Jinnah the father of nation, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Former Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1970s.

Unfortunately, he failed to form his own team and was depending on a team lobbying for IMF, World Bank or Western World. They have encircled him and kept on lobbying for their agenda. They finally pushed him to a stage, where he agreed to accept IMF. Close to him, sources think, he was never convinced but was made to accept. We are afraid, if this lobby can isolate him from nationalists and patriots, may succeed in the implementation of their agenda.

PM Imran Khan, is honest, hardworking and people loving leader. He loves Pakistan and common citizens of Pakistan. He really wanted to bring a change in the Society, where common man’s welfare is a top agenda. He is sincere with the nation and wanted to establish a total comprehensive welfare state. Unfortunately, he was lobbied wrongly and opted for IMF.

People of Pakistan have blindly trusted in Imran Khan and possess very high expectations from him. I know, Imran Khan understands it very well. He is an honest, brave and visionary leader and I believe he will not disappoint his voters.

Hope PM Imran Khan may educate people of Pakistan about the details of the IMF package and try to convince the masses. The welfare of common man and all other promises made with the nation before elections may be explained to masses, this is required urgently before he loses credibility and popularity among the masses.

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