Jun 042008

The fact that madrassah education imparts education to children of the poor who lack resources to avail mainstream education is an erroneous generalisation
When I travelled from Pakistan to the US recently, a query by the US customs official at the airport provided me a worrisome insight into Washington’s mindset. Amid a jovial conversation, the officer asked whether I had ever received ‘madrassah’ education.

Presuming that it was part of the light discourse, I laughed, upon which the gentleman stiffened and stated that it was a serious question for which he was bound to obtain a ‘yes/no’ response. Presumably, this was due to my Pakistani citizenship.

When I asked officer whether he meant, ‘radical’ madaris, he responded by saying: “madaris, yes or no?” While seemingly a simple query, it raises fundamental questions about the US mindset vis-à-vis Pakistan. What are the US authorities attempting to achieve by obtaining such information? Clearly, it is a means of identifying ‘problem’ cases. But does it make sense?

As Pakistanis would readily acknowledge, madrassah education per se does not warrant raising a red flag against an individual. A blanket inquiry such as this points to a lack of comprehension of the complexities surrounding the notion of madaris.

To begin with, one must establish the fact that the negative roles attached to Pakistani madaris have been blown out of proportion courtesy of the western media. A number of recent independent studies, some of which have been conducted by US experts, clearly suggest that no more than 10-15 percent madaris may be imparting radical education.

Even these figures remain at the higher end of the on-ground reality given that they tend to lump the ‘more conservative than most’ with the truly ‘radical’. Estimates that seek to differentiate between these present a figure of merely 5-10 percent. While even this is an alarmingly high number in absolute terms, the more important fact for my argument is that 90-95 percent of madrassah cadres never receive any radical preaching.

Next, the fact that madrassah education imparts education to children of the poor who lack resources to avail mainstream education is an erroneous generalisation. Despite the negative propaganda that has surrounded madrassah education, a large number of Pakistani households, the well-to-do included, still consider sending their children to dini madaris.

Findings of a recent World Bank commissioned study clearly establishes that a number of secularly educated parents from middle class families prefer to send at least one of their male children to madaris.

Moreover, the perception (about madaris) of those interviewed in the study remained positive, including households from urban towns. In addition, even the poorer families sampled for the study maintained that their rationale for opting for madaris is the merit of receiving religious education, and not financial concerns per se.

The point is that contrary to foreign perception, madrassah education is still held in high regard by a vast proportion of the Pakistani population. If such a trend continues, there will be a healthy percentage that would have gone through madrassah education but would still remain ‘peacefully-conservative’ in their outlook.

Then there is the question of knowing which are the 5-10 percent truly radical madaris. Indeed, the US authorities could argue that they are cognisant of the above-mentioned subtleties and are only meaning to raise red flags if an individual with a connection to one of the ‘notorious’ madaris entered the US.

However, even this argument is superficial. It ignores the fluid nature of madrassah education. In reality, the entire concept of madaris as centres of religious education is so fluid that it is virtually impossible to capture the entire universe of seminaries in the country. There may well be (and almost certainly are) countless establishments where groups of children are educated in informal settings under supervision of Islamic organisations that never make it to any official records. No information can be compiled to assess the extent of radicalism being preached in such outfits.

Also, given the crackdown on formally established radical madaris, it is entirely possible that those with malign intentions may have begun to switch their activities to such informal centres. Already, the Government of Pakistan has failed in its mass madrassah registration drive. In fact, it has virtually given up on the idea of bringing each and every madrassah into the formal loop for the above stated reason.

Of course, the most obvious notorious seminaries are well known and a blanket question on madaris could theoretically point out at least the individuals with associations with such seminaries.

However, since US apprehension with cadres from these select madaris is common knowledge, no such cadre, especially one entering with malign intentions is likely to reveal his connection. This defeats the entire purpose of the query.

There is also the issue of name-fudging. Given the lack of registration and the fluid nature, madaris could easily switch names (as some of the less noted ones have done) to short-circuit the government’s move to ban them. Again, the query will be rendered useless.

Finally, even having been associated with a well-known notorious madrassah ought not to make an individual automatically ‘suspicious’ for US authorities. Madaris may well end up creating a mindset, or a certain inclination, but they seldom act as the sanctuaries where radical training is received.

Suggesting this would be mingling two distinct establishments, the madaris and the training camps. Indeed, a large number of madrassah students have ended up going to training camps. However, there is no evidence to suggest that all cadres from certain madaris join Jihadi outfits. Cadres graduating from a particular notorious madrassah may well end up choosing career paths that are polar opposites of each other.

There are countless examples of perfectly legitimate mainstreamed individuals who have had a past in the ‘no-go madaris’. A perfect example is the Dar-ul-Aloom Haqqania, famous for having educated the Taliban leadership. While the Taliban High Command did attend the madrassah, that their future was molded solely by the experience at the madrassah is a simplistic argument.

If the onus lay on the madrassah, how does one explain the fact that the vast majority of cadres coming out of Haqqania have chosen perfectly legitimate futures?

The point of the above is not to play down the extreme threat posed by the radical madaris. There is no denying the fact that outfits spreading a radical message must be tackled.

However, there is little justification to treat the madrassah system as an evil in its entirety and each individual with a background in madrassah education as a threat. The issues surrounding madrassah-induced radicalism are more complex and cannot be captured by posing a stereotypical query.

Such basic errors, while mundane at some level, are key for the US, a country that suffers from an equally acute image deficit in the Muslim world, as Pakistan does in the West. Perhaps a more accommodating welcome is in order for citizens of a country that the US itself suggests is most anti-American and where Washington needs to market itself more than any other place in the world.

Even a comprehensive case-to-case interview to understand each individual’s background would be a better option than a blanket inquiry that only makes the perfectly legitimate wary of speaking the truth.

The writer is a research fellow at the Strategic and Economic Policy Research (Pvt Ltd.) in Islamabad and a regular contributor to The Friday Times

Source: Daily Times, 4/6/2008


 Posted by at 9:17 am

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