Pakistan’s Islamic Schools Fill Void, but Fuel Militancy
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
May 4, 2009
But if the state has forgotten the children here, the
mullahs have not. With public education in a shambles,
The concentration of madrasas here in southern Punjab has
become an urgent concern in the face of
In an analysis of the profiles of suicide bombers who have
struck in Punjab, the
“We are at the beginning of a great storm that is about to
sweep the country,” said Ibn Abduh Rehman, who directs the Human Rights
Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization. “It’s red alert for
President Obama said in a news conference last week that he was “gravely concerned” about the situation in Pakistan, not least because the government did not “seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services: schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of the people.”
He has asked Congress to more than triple assistance to
But education has never been a priority here, and even
“This is a state that never took education seriously,” said
Stephen P. Cohen, a
Pakistani families have long turned to madrasas, and the
religious schools make up a relatively small minority. But even for the
majority who attend public school, learning has an Islamic bent. The national
curriculum was Islamized during the 1980s under Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, a
military ruler who promoted
Failures in Education
But even today, only about half of Pakistanis can read and
write, far below the proportion in countries with similar per-capita income,
“Education in Pakistan was left to the dogs,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad who is an outspoken critic of the government’s failure to stand up to spreading Islamic militancy.
This impoverished expanse of rural southern
Of the more than 12,000 madrasas registered in
Though madrasas make up only about 7 percent of primary
The public elementary school for boys in this village is the very picture of the generations of neglect that have left many poor Pakistanis feeling abandoned by their government.
Shaukat Ali, 40, a tall man with an earnest manner who teaches fifth grade, said he had asked everyone for help with financing, including government officials and army officers. A television channel even did a report. “The result,” he said, “was zero.”
A government official responsible for monitoring schools in the area, Muhamed Aijaz Anjum, said he was familiar with the school’s plight. But he has no car or office, and his annual travel allowance is less than $200; he said he was helpless to do anything about it.
With few avenues for advancement in what remains a feudal society, many poor Pakistanis do not believe education will improve their lives. The dropout rate reflects that.
One of Mr. Ali’s best students, Muhamed Arshad Ali, was offered a state scholarship to continue after the fifth grade. His parents would not let him accept. He quit and took up work ironing pants for about 200 rupees a day, or $2.50.
“Many poor people think salaried jobs are only for rich people,” Mr. Ali said. “They don’t believe in the end result of education.”
Safety Net From Despair
“Madrasas have been mushrooming,” said Zobaida Jalal, a member of Parliament and former education minister.
The phenomenon began in the 1980s, when General Zia gave
madrasas money and land in an American-supported policy to help Islamic
fighters against the Soviet forces in
The Islamic schools are also seen as employment
opportunities. “When someone doesn’t see a way ahead for himself, he builds a
mosque and sits in it,” said Jan Sher, whose village in southwestern
“How can someone who earns 200 rupees a day afford expenses
for five children?” asked Hafeezur Rehman, a caretaker in the Jamia Sadiqqia
Taleemul Koran madrasa in
Former President Pervez Musharraf tried to regulate the madrasas, offering financial incentives if they would add general subjects. But after taking the money, many refused to allow monitoring. “The madrasa reform project failed,” said Javed Ashraf Qazi, a retired general who served as education minister at the time.
Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of
In the district that includes Mohri Pur, a mud-walled village of about 6,000 where farmers drive on dirt roads in tractors and donkey carts piled high with sticks and grasses, there are an estimated 200 madrasas, one-third the number of public schools, said Mr. Anjum, the education official.
Nonreligious private schools have also sprouted since the 1990s. They have better student-teacher ratios, but only the most exclusive — out of reach of most middle-class Pakistanis — offer a rigorous, modern education. Mr. Ali, the fifth-grade teacher, says the madrasas have changed Mohri Pur. They are Deobandi, adherents of an ultra-Orthodox Sunni school of thought that opposes music and festivals, which are central aspects of Sufism, a tolerant form of Islam that is traditional here.
There were no madrasas in Mohri Pur in the late 1980s, when
Mr. Ali began teaching. Now there are at least five. Most are affiliated with a
branch in the neighboring town of
Fear and Respect
Several local residents said they believed the Kabirwala seminary was dangerous. Some of its members were involved in sectarian violence against Shiites in the 1990s, they said.
Even if the madrasas do not make militants, they create a
worldview that makes militancy possible. “The mindset wants to stop music,
girls’ schools and festivals,” said Salman Abid, a social researcher in
On a recent Thursday, the Kabirwala seminary was buzzing with activity. Officials showed rooms of boys crouched over Korans, reading and rocking. A full kitchen had an industrial-size bread oven. Flowers adorned walkways. The foundation for a new dormitory had been broken.
There was also a girls’ section, with its own entrance, where hundreds of young women chanted in unison after directions from a male voice that came from behind a curtain. “We have a passion for this work,” said Seraj ul-Haq, a computer teacher who is part of the family that founded the seminary. Teachers preach restrictions. February’s newsletter set out a list of taboos: Valentine’s Day. Music. Urban women “wearing imported perfume.” Talking about women’s rights.
Suicide bombings were neither encouraged nor condemned.
The ideology may be rigid, but it offers the promise of respect, a powerful draw for lower-class young men.
Abed Omar, 24, had little religious education before he was inspired by a sermon at the seminary last year. Better educated than most, he began to work in his family’s sweets shop.
Restless and unfulfilled, he joined a conservative Islamic group, paying about $625 to travel with them around the country for four months on a preaching tour. The group, Tablighi Jamaat, taught him that Islam forbids music and speaking with women. (He would speak to this reporter only through a male colleague.) American officials suspect that the group is a steppingstone to the Taliban. Pakistani officials say it is peaceful.
Now, when Mr. Omar visits his friends, “they turn off their tape players and give me their seat,” he said, a smile lifting his face, which, in the practice of some conservative Islamists, has a bushy beard but no mustache.
He is frustrated by a lack of opportunity and at how much of
He knows about 100 people in his town who have done a four-month tour like his. As for those who sign up for less, he said “they are countless.”
Waqar Gillani contributed reporting from Mohri Pur and
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