Searching for the roots of terrorism after the attacks of 9/11, the world’s attention turned to Pakistan and to Pakistan’s religious schools, the “madrasas”. This put pressure on the Pakistani government to reform the madrasas and ignited a long standing debate on the role of religious education in Pakistan and its links to radicalisation and militancy. This policy brief argues that the madrasa debate is not premised on a fair description of reality. The madrasa sector is diverse. The majority of Pakistan’s madrasas are moderate institutions, concerned with promoting Islamic beliefs and knowledge. This makes it important to distinguish between moderate and militant madrasas. Madrasas must be seen as part of an Islamic tradition of learning, not primarily as political groups, but rather as socio-cultural institutions that are revered by many in Pakistan today.
The madrasa community has resisted state interference and rejected government control over curriculum in favor of the authority of religious experts. Likewise, madrasas are wary of financial dependence on the government, which is associated with government control. The government’s ambiguous relationship to militant groups is also condemned by madrasas who argue that the government is clamping down on moderate schools, while madrasas known to have links to militant groups are under protection and therefore operate freely.
The recent accord signed by the nation-wide Federation of Madrasa Boards and the Minister of Interior in October 2010 is a promising step forward in improving madrasa-government relations. It sets the terms for government-approved madrasa syllabi, for granting religious education boards the same status as other education boards, and prohibits madrasas from teaching or publishing “any literature that promotes militancy or spreads sectarianism”. While there are clearly areas of disagreement, there is an interest within the current madrasa leadership to cooperate with the government, as long as this cooperation does not compromise the madrasas’ independent position. The sector is well organised and operates as a unified group, which potentially could facilitate sector-wide reform.
Dealing with the rise in militancy is a huge challenge, which involves a much broader strategy than a narrow focus on madrasas and their reform. Moderate madrasas, if engaged in a process based on respect and dialogue, represent an untapped potential. If encouraged, moderate madrasas could help reduce sectarian conflict and the incidence of violence, and identify and promote solutions leading towards a more peaceful coexistence. A blanket condemnation of madrasas could end up serving as a self-fulfilling prophecy, contributing to the radicalisation of moderate madrasas.