The London blasts of July 2005 have further fuelled global paranoia about 'Islamic terrorism' that followed the 9/11 attacks. The world has now come to perceive Islam as intolerant and obscurantist. This new - and misguided - interpretation of the religion views madrassas as the laboratories of Islam, where intolerance and terror are bred.
Following 9/11, in fact, much has been written about how the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives are a result of training at Islamic seminaries. This critique overlooks the underlying causes of the existence of madrassas and why children are sent there. To say that militancy is part of the training at all madrassas is not only unfair, but also does not give adequate weightage to the social security that these madrassas provide to the economically and socially marginalized sections of society.
In a country controlled by military junta for most of its existence, and a political system made weaker by the breakdown of State institutions, madrassas have an important role to play. They offer free boarding and lodging to students - largely in the 15-18 age group - belonging to the poorer strata of society.
The quantitative expansion of madrassas is directly linked to the failure of the public education system. Only a privileged few can afford to pay the exorbitant fees that private schools demand, leaving more than 90 per cent of the children to either take up education at government schools or madrassas.
Although the Pakistani government dismisses reports that enrolment of students in madrassas has increased, surveys conducted by various NGOs, like the Lahore-based Aurat Foundation, confirm that people who earn about Rs 2,000 (US$1=Pak Rs 59.6) or so a month, prefer madrassas to government schools. The Annual Report 2004 of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan confirms this: "Madrassas remain the most swiftly expanding sector in the educational sphere."
Kulsoom Bibi, a widow earning Rs 2,500 from her work as a domestic help, says, "I have eight children, and cannot send them to school. But the Jamia Naeemia madrassa in Lahore does not charge fees and also provides free boarding. My two sons studied there and one of my daughters is also studying there. She wants to teach the Quran later."
In a report published by the Planning Commission of Pakistan in May 2005, enrolment to primary schooling in Pakistan is 92 per cent. At middle-school level, the figure drops to 63 per cent, and plummets further to 44 per cent at the secondary level. The total school enrolment in both - public and private - sectors is about 25.9 million. The Planning Commission also asserts that the public sector expenditure on education has grown from Rs. 75.9 billion in 2000-01 to Rs 132.9 billion (2.3 per cent of the GDP) in 2004-05.
The 2003 report of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Karachi, and the Provincial Education Department, Sindh, also found a decline in the number of school-going children. It said that while 70 per cent (a much lower percentage than the official Planning Commission figures) of all children under the age of 12 are enrolled in school, less than half of them actually complete primary education. More worrying yet is a UNICEF study of 2004, which found that only 33 per cent of children in Grade 5 could read with comprehension - a shocking comment on the state of education in the country.
These figures are a clear indictment of the government school system. And it is this vacuum that madrassas fill. An approximate figure provided by the Police Intelligence Bureau states that nearly 1.5 million students are studying at more than 10,000 seminaries. In 1947, there were only 137 madrassas in West Pakistan (as Pakistan was then known). By 1956, the number had gone up to 244, and in 2005 it had crossed 13,000. Government statistics for 2005 reveal that only 11,000 madrassas are registered. Of that figure, the government claims, less than 10 per cent have terrorist connections. A sizeable number of registered seminaries - 2,715 - are in southern Punjab, and instruct nearly 253,125 students.
Students at madrassas learn how to read, memorize and recite the Quran, and at the end of the course are given certificates that are the equivalent of a Masters or Bachelors degree. The graduates of these institutions usually take up work as imams (priests) and khatibs (lecturers) at mosques and affiliated organizations. Career options for these students are restricted to religious studies and institutions (a criticism often levelled against the madrassa system of education). They are, therefore, often given jobs in the local mosques. Some of them are even encouraged by their alma mater to establish their own madrassas.
Following the US government's demand - for the banning of madrassas promoting extremism and the mainstreaming of the rest through incorporation of a modern curriculum - madrassas have become a focal point for the Pakistan government. The Musharraf government passed the Madrassa Ordinance in 2000; and in October 2004, the Federal Ministry of Education released Rs. 495 million to provincial education ministries towards the mainstreaming of madrassas. This amount is part of the government's Madrassa Reform Programme (MRP) announced in 2004, comprising a grand package of Rs. 5.759 billion.
In a meeting in 2004 with Norwegian Ambassador Janis Bjorn Kanavin, Federal Minister for Education Javed Ashraf Qazi admitted that 32,000 teachers in 11,000 madrassas would benefit from the MRP. He said the government intended to introduce modern subjects, such as English, general science, economics, math, computer courses and Pakistan studies in the madrassas. He was also quoted as acknowledging that the MRP aimed at stopping the supply of ready recruits for radicals "because students were easily hired by terrorists for lack of employment and other opportunities".
Historically, madrassas date back to the rule of Nizam-ul-Mulk in 11th century Iraq and have played a vital social role, especially in terms of education. It is a pity that the actions of a few radicals should entirely overshadow the significance of a centuries-old institution.