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Old Saturday, November 19, 2005
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Arrow Fundamentalism In Pakistan


IN its new role as a key player in the US-led war on terrorism, the Pakistani establishment has toned down many policies that previously fostered militancy and religious extremism. At best this is a short-term response. It is doubtful whether the establishment truly intends to set Pakistani society on a sustainable course leading to political pluralism and religious tolerance. The continued marginalization of liberal, democratic forces has aggravated the situation. Small wonder, one third of all children being educated in Pakistan attend madressahs. They study in a religious environment that has been radicalized by the state-sponsored exposure of the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir.


According to one estimate, one and half million students at more than 10,000 seminaries are being trained for service in religious sectors. Poverty and the lack of a modern curriculum have proved destabilizing factors for Pakistani society. Religious organizations banned by the government continue to run schools and produce militant literature. Madressahs have a long history in Pakistan and Muslim society. They only came under close scrutiny after 9/11. The perception in the West about them is not altogether correct. Not all madressahs breed revolutionaries. In Pakistan, there are five distinct types of madressahs divided along sectarian and political lines. The two main branches of Sunni Islam in South Asia, namely Deobandi and Barelvi, dominate this sector


Madressahs under these entities provide Islamic education with a sectarian bias. They offer free boarding and lodging to the students who come mainly from the poor strata of society. The religious parties and clergy have never been as powerful in Pakistan as they are today. In 1947, there were only 137 madressahs. According to a survey in 1956, there were 244 madressahs in West Pakistan. Since then, after every 10 years, the number of madressahs is found to have doubled
Militancy is only a part of the madressah problem. Most madressahs do not impart military training or education but sow the seeds of extremism in the minds of the students. In their mission to prevail over rival sects, madressahs educate their students to counter arguments of opposing sects. The promotion of a particular sect implies rejection of the other, which means the production of literature against one and other
Sectarianism in Pakistan is the latest form of a conflict within Islam dating to the 7th century caliphate. In India, Muslim rulers opened madressahs for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Schools of mystic traditions taught subjects such as philosophy, mathematics and astronomy to prepare students for court jobs, the royal bureaucracy and religious duties.
The Pakistani establishment has often formed alliances with religious parties. In this process, society has become violent and bigoted. It is a matter of record that madressahs multiplied during Ziaul Haq’s reign. Today, Pakistan is reaping the harvest of the seeds of militancy that were sowed by successive military governments.


The years that followed after the creation of Pakistan saw the establishment playing a cloak and dagger game with the clergy, using them for their political purpose and at the same time bringing about non-effective reforms to try and curtail the rising influence of the madressahs.
Ziaul Haq’s policies during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan played an important role as madressahs were created to produce militant literature, garner public sympathy and recruit and train jihadi forces. Then there were also independent madressahs of the JUI which opposed Ziaul Haq but were nevertheless a part of the Afghanistan war. The role of the ISI and funding by the United States also contributed to the strengthening of the madressahs. With the passage of time, the students of these madressahs took up arms against sectarian rivals in Pakistan.

The present dispensation lacks the political will to confront the religious right as it relies very heavily on the latter to perpetuate itself in power. It will be recalled that when fundamentalist parties were banned, they sprung up under different names under the very nose of the government. Then bail was granted and permission given to the late Azam Tariq, a leader of a banned religious organization, to contest general elections in 2002.

The laws with reference to the madressahs’ curriculum, their funding and regulation await implementation. Recently, the government has executed an about-turn on the religion column in the passport and has stopped mixed marathon races. Once again, it has proved that it lacks the political will to pursue a liberal agenda. But then, this should not come as a surprise because the complexion of the ruling party is right of centre and the establishment thrives on this to perpetuate its power.
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