ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Although the Western media often depicts madrassas as breeding grounds for extremism, some say well managed religious schools can actually help children escape poverty and learn how to read.
Al Jazeera said that the Pakistani government proposed plans to place madrassas under the administration of the nation’s education system. This would be Pakistan’s first National Internal Security Policy that is designed to put an end to religious extremism.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told parliament that a large number of terrorists are or have at one point been students in madrassas. He believes that students who attend these institutions have the tendency to become “brainwashed to take up arms against the state.”
Not all madrassas breed terrorism, however. Pakistan, one of the many countries that supports the United States in the war against terror, is mainly concerned with madrassas that are poorly managed.
According to Azhar Hussain, president of the Peace and Education Foundation in Pakistan, the government tried to bring madrassas under state control in the past but failed. He told Al Jazeera that it is necessary for the government to run madrassas because some are unable to prepare students to face the challenges of today’s world.
It is true that the government needs to step in so that children who attend madrassas are able to receive the proper education they need. But is there such thing as too much government involvement, especially if it is authoritarian?
In the past, predominantly Muslim countries saw a rise in extremism when governments, which were mostly secular, took control of religious institutions such as mosques and madrassas.
In an article discussing the reasons behind the emergence of Islamic revivalism, Philip S. Khoury, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Egypt’s religious institutions have been dominated by the state since the nation gained its independence from imperialist Britain.
“Whereas in Iran the Shi’i Muslim clergy managed to retain a certain degree of independence from the state, in Egypt and Syria the Sunni Muslim religious leadership was long ago co-opted by the state,” said Khoury in his article.
Around the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was deemed illegitimate by the state. The government imprisoned thousands of the party’s members because they were highly critical of broken promises from the secular regime, which promoted nationalism but improved its ties with Britain, Egypt’s former colonizer.
When more recent graduates were unable to acquire jobs in Egypt’s public sector, the elite in Egypt became more authoritarian and less tolerant of Islam, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Jillian Schewdler former Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb, who was locked up in the 1950s and 1960s, claimed that violence was necessary to change the politics in Egypt.
In his book titled Signposts Along the Road, Qutb argues that Muslims are not obligated to respect the religious leaders in Egypt since they only serve the interests of regimes who have “abandoned Islamic values and teachings.”
However, the Muslim Brotherhood gained legitimacy from the Egyptian people because it refused to participate in violent acts. Instead, it focused its attention on finding ways to become legal through the Egyptian system.
The Brotherhood eventually secured a few positions in parliament, but the party’s activities remain monitored by the state.
“Extremists tend to emerge out of the most repressive contexts and aim to achieve political change not through gradual reform, but by directly attacking those in power,” said Schewdler.
It is therefore important for international observers to see whether the Pakistani state will regulate madrassas with or without repressive measures. Transparency is necessary due to the Pakistan government’s long history of undemocratic and inhumane practices, according to Freedom House.
“Journalists, human rights defenders, and humanitarian aid workers faced significant pressure and threats, particularly those whose work focused on sensitive topics such as Pakistan’s blasphemy laws or abuses by security and intelligence agencies,” the organization said.
The goal here is to promote a better education for poor children throughout the country who attend madrassas. Although extremism does have the potential to breed within these institutions, the Egyptian case makes it clear that the non-democratic government must use precaution to avoid making the situation any worse.
Sources: Al Jazeera, Islamic Revivalism and the Crisis of the Secular State in the Arab World, Understanding the Contemporary Middle East (Third Edition), Freedom House
Photo: Central Asia Online