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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

Countering Terrorism and the dawn of CPEC

Sabah Aslam

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China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is much more than just a development deal between two states; it is to a large extent a mega-project which encompasses many foyers of economy, trade and politics as well as strategy between two highly important states within Asia. It incorporates developing a network of roads, pipelines, and railways which connects Balochistan province in Pakistan with Xinjiang in China. It has heralded a cross country exchange of nationals who are working day and night to make this mega-project a successful one. At present, there is an estimate of around 20,000 Chinese nationals working across Pakistan, and this means that around 70,000 short-term visit visas are being issued each year.

But with all this being said, it needs to be understood that the current state of terrorism is threatening to the entire Endeavour and this needs to be catered to. There are countless foreign forces which are at work to derail this mega-project and Pakistan is understandably doing its part, but it also opens susceptibility for China. There is also a propaganda being floated around by some hostile forces which are against CPEC and this revolves around the perspicacity of China being a so called “future colonizing power” as well as the issue of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. This can add to some inside forces operational in making CPEC more vulnerable and sensitive. Furthermore, there is a threat of terrorism which is being emanated within the Baloch Insurgents as well as the added foreign pressure of other Islamist terrorist groups particularly the Islamic State’s (ISIS) local affiliates in the country.  The terror attacks which rocked Balochistan in December 2018 and January 2019 are testimonies of this.

To begin with it must be cleared that currently the Baloch insurgent groups have exhibited signs of antagonism toward the Chinese presence in Pakistan. This province has a dire sense of dearth paralleled with other provinces and because of this under-development and political instability there is a lack of trust within Baloch people towards the Federal governments. Adding the Chinese presence in this atmosphere has only proven to further this lack of trust and probable resentment. The idea of exploitation of local resources by the Chinese is a coming propaganda which has already surfaced and will be pushed by some entities which do not wish for CPEC to succeed. A total of six Baloch separatist groups have publicised displeasure toward the Chinese presence, which is impaired by the government’s inability to address Baloch grievances. In the year 2018, Allah Nazar Baloch who is the commander of the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) addressed a letter to the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, stating that Chinese nationals, including fishermen, laborers, and tourists, are legitimate targets for attacks. Furthermore, in 2018 the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army) targeted a bus transporting Chinese engineers in the Dalbandin district in a suicide bombing.

Moreover the Islamic State’s (IS) local branch for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), has also targeted Chinese presence in Pakistan. The IS has labelled China an “oppressor of Muslims similar to Israel, India, and the U.S.” in the past. The increasing Chinese presence in Pakistani provinces gives these networks an opening to gain conspicuousness and coverage by targeting foreign nationals and business professionals which adds to their importance as well. With the Islamic State’s territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, a possible shift toward Afghanistan and Pakistan as a safe-haven for operations, and portrayal of itself as a group that is as strong now as it was back in 2014.

China has strategic geostrategic interests in Pakistan which will be indomitable to avert CPEC from failing or its interests being targeted by terrorist and separatist groups. China has no doubt become more inclined to strengthen its counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan since 2015, the most recent example of which is the joint training exercise conducted in Punjab province in December 2018. Previously China has patented the TTP as a serious and well-engineered menace to peace and stability within Pakistan which adversely impacts the Chinese position in the state after the group threatened to cut off access to the Karakoram Highway.

The combativeness in Balochistan province is largely advocated to be a product of the proxy war between India and Pakistan. Pakistan has by and again claimed that Indian intelligence is tangled in Balochistan and has been capitalising on the militancy in the province. These proclamations were broadened in 2016, when an Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav, was arrested and indicted by Pakistan of being a spy.

These loopholes present in security can add up to the overall stagnation and possible blacking out of the $62 billion dollar deal between two prominent states. If this deal goes through, Balochistan will be resuscitated and has the potential to turn into a developing province for the future. Of course Pakistan and its policy makers are not completely phased out as there is an active unit of forces which are taking care of the impeding issue at hand. The collaboration between Pakistan and China has enhanced and this vulnerability does not need to be worried about much in the context of the larger strategic cooperation. CPEC is prone to terrorism but it is also prone to safeguarding the project, the intensity of which far exceeds the threats. Furthermore, the Pakistan-China cooperative partnership to counter-terrorism is need of time, especially when the BRI is transforming the world from geo-political to geo-economic phase. Mutual trust, joint efforts, and regional cooperation is the key to completely eliminate the scourge of terrorism from the face of earth.

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Masood Azhar is not guilty nor involved in any crime

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China is a responsible state and understands its international obligations. China has become the second largest economy as well as geopolitical power of the emerging world. China’s wise decision to block Security Council’s resolution to declare Masood Azhar as terrorist is highly appreciated.

He was born at Bhawalpur on July 10, 1968. His father worked as the headmaster of the government school in Bhawalpur and very well respected in the society. He has five brothers and six sisters. He was educated at the JamiaIslamia and passed the almia (Islamic) examination in 1989.

He was blamed on several occasions by India and trialed in Pakistan. But found not guilty and released by courts. Courts in Pakistan are independent and well-known for delivering justice. The degree of freedom of Pakistani courts can be witnessed by their bold decisions against the two of sitting Prime Ministers of Pakistan. World has appreciated the justice system of Pakistan.

In fact, India is I habit of blaming Pakistan for its internal issues. On the one hand, India is using excessive force against its minorities and pushing them to the extreme corner, where they have left no option except taking arms. On the other hands, promoting and facilitating its extremist groups. India is a country, which officially promote intolerance, extremism, and spreading hate. Extremists in India has hijacked the Government and penetrated into all segments of the society. Especially in educational institutions and media. Their role is endangering not only the whole region, but the whole world.

India’s human rights violation records has exceeded the whole world. Its atrocities in Kashmir, Naga Land, Khalistan, Bihar, Assam, Tamil and Moa-ists, has been noticed by the International Amnesty and European Union and International Community.

Whenever, India bash Pakistan, we always asked them to provide evidence, which they do not have and cannot provide. Pakistan is a moderate, rational and responsible nation. We have offered India for providing reliable evidence so that we can take appropriate actions. In the latest, incident which happened on 14 February 2019 in Pulwama, which was 100% India’s domestic issue. Indian forces has tortured an innocent Kashmiri several time during the last few years. He was in the custody of Indian forces since 2017. But, habitually India blamed Pakistan. Without having any investigations, within hours India started bashing Pakistan and threatened for war. Prime Minister of Pakistan requested India to provide evidences or actionable intelligence, so that we can take any action. He offered a dialogue to settle all pending issues diplomatically. Instead of providing evidence and cooperation for dialogue, India has attacked Pakistan on 26 February 2019. Which is against all the norms of civilized world and UN charter. But Pakistan observed patience and restrained to avert escalation of full-scale war.

In fact, Masood Azhar is seriously ill for last several years and on bed. He cannot even move easily. Blaming him for any act of terrorism is injustice against humanity. India has tried to blame him several times in past. It is fourth attempt, where India has faced humiliated defeat. Hope, India may not have courage to put false allegations on any one else or use others as scapegoat in future.

France has presented a resolution to black list Masood Azhar, which was backed by UK and US. But the resolution was supported with evidences. In fact, the resolution may not be presented by France without having enough investigation and supported by solid evidences. UK and US has backed France only based on political reasons. This has damaged the reputation of Security Council too. It has been witnessed that UN has become tool for twisting other nations which do not fit-in Western Template. It is very unfortunate and alarming situation. However, China is a very mature and sensible nation, China has been coerced and victimized in past and can understand the responsibility of judging the truth. Chinese approach is appreciated and a ray of hope for all small countries and the whole developing world. It is appealed to international community and all peace loving nations as well as individuals to condemn coercing any individual or a country.

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US withdrawal from Afghanistan: The cure is worse than the disease itself

Adeel Abbas Mangi

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The US withdrawal from Afghanistan seems to be the replica of what already happened after Obama decided to leave Iraq in 2012.Recent withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan is considered as the prospect of imminent defeat factor that influenced Trump’s decision ,and also the innumerable financial cost of war in both countries would impact US taxpayers around US 15.3 billion dollars in Syrian war and US 45 billion dollars in Afghanistan.

Currently, Afghanistan is not only a safe haven for Taliban leadership but there is a very complex-nest of band-outfits currently residing in war torn country. It is evident that Al-Qaeda with a huge cooperation with Taliban has been operating in this region, whereas ISIS  had already established a manageable command and control structure  with the collaboration of Pakistani-Taliban, lashkar-e-jhangvi, Ahrar-ul-hind, Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) in Tajikistan and Islamic movement of Uzbekistan as these connections are under surveillance-radar  of security institutions. 

Whereas, President Trump’s technique to combating terrorism looks like the back sideline, it looks loads like President  Obama’s. It’s heavy on the use of particular operations raids and American Airstrikes, however, it relies chiefly on indigenous forces to furnish the majority of the ground operations. To be certain, it’s not a carbon copy. It’s extra open to hazard authorizing extra missions than Obama’s could have, and delegating more selection-making to his subordinate military commanders. However, in comparison with the principal alternatives, a big conventional invasion, unrestricted airstrikes, an arms-off technique, or anything else it’s more like Obama’s 2016 coverage than now not. Defense Department officials described as a coordinated series of attacks on Taliban leaders and fighters, this current technique is orchestrated in order to gain high leverage in the process of   on-going negotiations with the Taliban.

Back to the main argument that right after US withdrawal from Iraq world has seen worst type of violence in the shape of Sunni-awakening moment resulted in formation of the world deadliest organization ISIS and to compare with the current security dynamics of Kabul so there would be a huge possibility of chaos in the region. Some experts speculate an even ferocious civil war could affect the Kabul government and weaken its army that would resultantly give gains to warlords to forge new power. That could open doors to new refugee crisis, cuts in international aid and could cripple the afghan military standing.

On the front of regional stability paradigm shift, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia who have welcomed US withdrawal from the region and their pro-active role in bringing Taliban on negotiable table suggested through Taliban enmity against the increasing power accumulation by ISIS and their allied groups in Afghanistan.

Another reason behind Islamabad’s special consideration to sort out Afghan chapter due to Indian influence and their prospects to sabotage CPEC. Recent visit by MBS to Pakistan with a 20billion dollars investment and Aid package is considered as according to Theodore Karasik from the geostrategic consultancy Gulf State Analytics in Washington, “Saudi moves and investment in Pakistan are a set and established policy that seeks to better integrate Islamabad into Riyadh’s camp” and “align U.S. and Saudi policy with  Pakistan as part of the larger picture of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition.”

For now, Pakistan geo-strategic location is once again changing the socio-economic projection to materialize the regional integration and importance at global calculus that frustrated many who wanted Islamabad’s global isolation. To be rationale, Pakistan’s economic zones are at huge risk due to be heavenly surrounded by warlords alongside border with Afghanistan. To mitigate that risk Pakistan military has completed border fencing of around 900km border wall with Afghanistan while the remainder of 2600km will be executed in 2019. The fence is provided with security cameras and motion detectors.

Besides of these arrangements, there is also a developing fear of more radicalization with respect to internal conflicts between Al-Qaeda leadership and ISIS. For this, these band outfits are     profoundly active in recruitment process as mentioned by Tom Craig in Washington post that Al-Qaeda with the collaboration of South Asian offshoot called al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), created by al-Qaeda’s top leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, in 2014 has started resurgence in order to slow advances by rival Islamic State militants in the region.

Moreover, it had been witnessed in Syrian crisis that the proximity between Al-Qaeda and ISIS could not be deniable factor. In 2013 Baghdadi had shocked the world by announcing that Al-Nusra front (Al-Qaeda offshoot) is now under command and control of ISI(Islamic State of Iraq) right after this merger it became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(Levant).

The current withdrawal and the postwar policy of US and its allies don’t suggest an acceptable terms for the Afghan’s as well as affecting regional actors. As argued by   Anthony H. Cordesman that “It is all too clear that any form of real and lasting peace requires “victory at the civil level as well as the military one, and that such a victory has three critical components: political unity, effective governance, and economic progress”.

Unfortunately, United states payback in all three areas for Afghans are still up in the Air. Trump’s once said in recent Cabinet meeting 2019 by referring ISIS and Taliban ambush that both are our enemies “Let them fight” and was suggesting his generals “Why don’t you let them fight?”  Why are we getting in the middle of it? These postures suggests the idiosyncratic behavior right now to tackle the prolonged un-ending Afghan quagmire. Therefore, Washington’s current strategy would open ways to unrelenting instability wave within South-Asia and it could affect the security apparatus in the west.  

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