Madrassas and Militancy

While their numbers remain contested, according to conservative estimates there are approximately 20,000 madrassas in Pakistan (USCIRF 2011). A large majority of these trace their origins to the Zia era (1978-88), during which state sponsorship and material support contributed to their proliferation. Post 9/11 madrassas have come under increasing public and international scrutiny for their growing numbers, alleged linkages to terrorist groups/organizations and serving as breeding grounds for terrorism. Contrary to this perception, research done by the Harvard Kennedy School as part of the Learning and Educational Attainment in Punjab Schools (LEAPS) project in 2009 showed that only 1.3% of Pakistani children of school-going age are enrolled in madrassas. According to the LEAPS data, in fact about 65% of children attend public school while 34% attend “nonreligious” private schools. The LEAPS data also showed that children who attend madrassas do not come from particularly “radicalized” families. In fact, parents overwhelmingly, if they can afford the fees of private schools, choose to give their children a “modern” education which is seen as the route toward social mobility and well paying jobs. Similarly, research done by the Pakistan based Social Policy and Development Center (SPDC) revealed that only 6% of madrassa students cite religious reasons for attending madrassas, while 89% cited economic reasons (The State of education Report, 2002-03, SPDC, 2003, p.161).

While madrassa enrollment might be higher than 1.3% (between 2.7 and 6% of total student enrollment, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Pakistan 2011) these studies show that there is no automatic (and necessary) link between madrassas and militancy.  However, there is evidence to suggest that some madrassas have connections with militant/terrorist groups and that over the years their members have been radicalized as a result of  “state sponsored” exposure to jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir (ICG Asia Report No. 36 2002). For instance, a study by the Brookings Institute, highlights the linkages between militancy and madrassas such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam and the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania from where the Afghan Taliban leadership reportedly graduated (Brookings Analysis Paper #14, November 2001). Another 2010 survey examining the role of Islam in Pakistani society found that, while many madrassa students had tolerant views, 82% of those belonging to Deobandi madrassas saw the Taliban as a model for Islamizing Pakistan (Ali, 2010). 

Madrassas originated as waqfs (or “trust institutions”) with the purpose of training religious functionaries, Islamic scholars and imparting free Quranic teachings to poor children. They also provide some social services such as free food, clothing and boarding to their students and this increases their appeal in areas where educational alternatives are lacking or expensive.

There are five main types of madrassas in Pakistan, divided along sectarian and political lines: Deobandi, Barelvi, Shia, Ale-Hadith/Salafi (a minority sect which is close to the Saudi brand of Wahabi Islam) and Jamaat-e-Islami. The largest number of madrassas are those of the two main Sunni branches, Deobandi (almost 70%) followed by those belonging to the Barelvi sect (SPDC 2003). Each madrassa is affiliated with one of the following five madrassa boards: Wafaq-ul-Madaris Al-Arabia (Deobandi sect), Tanzim-ul-Madaris Ahle Sunnah wa Jama’a (Barelvi sect), Wafaq-ul-Madaris Shia Pakistan (Shia sect), Wafaq-ul-Madaris Al-Salafia (Ahle-Hadith/ sect) and Rabta-tul-MadarisAl-Islamia (Jamat-e-Islami sect), each of which is responsible for setting the madrassa curriculum.

The university level of madrassa is the Darl Ul Uloom, which produces huffaz-e-Qur'an (individuals who memorize the holy book), qaris (those who can recite it aloud) and ulema (religious scholars) (ICG Asia Report 2002, p.1). Unlike in public and private schools, the language of instruction in madrassas is Arabic and the syllabus focuses solely on Quranic teachings, interpretation of the Quran and Hadith, Islamic Jurisprudence, Arabic Literature, and Arabic Grammar.

There is no uniform curriculum or set of teachings across these five types of madrassa. While officially there is a standard madrassa curriculum known as the Dars-e-Nizami each type of madrassa follows its own exclusive texts with their specific and sectarian interpretations of Islamic teachings (ICG Asia Report No. 130, 2007, p.14). In recent years, while many madrassas have incorporated “modern” subjects (such as science and math) most of them still impart mostly religious education focusing on hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Given that madrassa curriculum is heavily dominated by religious material and divided along sectarian lines madrassa students are seen as having a limited and exclusionary worldview, which encourages religious intolerance and sectarianism (USCIRF Report 2011).

While the majority of madrassas do not impart military training or education, it is estimated that between 10-15% of madrassas are affiliated with violent extremist religious/political groups.1 These madrassas teach a brand of violent political jihad, extol suicide bombing and impart ideological and other training that encourages violence. Preaching and sermons at madrassas serves as an important recruitment tool, especially for young males. Madrassas also function as sanctuaries and meeting places for militants. Most of these madrassas trace their origins to post 1979 when madrassa number rose from a few hundred to the thousands.

At independence in 1947 there were 137 madrassas in Pakistan. By 1956 the number had almost doubled. Under Pakistan’s first military ruler, Ayub Khan, an Auqaf Department was created to regulate shrines and madrassas so as to bring them and their funding under state control. Ayub also proposed a series of reforms that called for introducing the same primary school education syllabus for madrassas as that provided in government schools. These reforms were rejected by all the religious parties and thus failed to be implemented (ICG Asia Report 2002, p.7). During this period, however, the number of madrassas did not register a significant increase. While Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-77) also employed Islam to build a national identity in a post civil war context it was under Zia ul Haq that the madrassa system truly flourished as it was lavished with both state patronage and material support.

Zia’s 1979 education policy envisaged 5,000 mosque schools and established a National Committee for Deeni Madaris to transform madrassas “into an integral part of our educational system” (ICG Asia Report 2002, p.10). Zia also instituted a system of compulsory zakat (Islamic tax) according to which a certain amount was deducted from bank balances and spent on religious purposes and institutions “worthy of support.” This led to a rapid growth in religious schools and institutions at the local level as it created powerful incentives for opening religious schools (Singer, 2001). Madrassa education was also encouraged by declaring madrassa certificates equivalent to university degrees, which allowed madrassa graduates to compete and qualify for government jobs.

The madrassa sector received another fillip with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan quickly became a frontline US ally in its fight against the Soviets and communism in Afghanistan. As a result Saudi and US money poured into Pakistan to help fight the Afghan Jihad. According to one estimate, Saudi Arabia reportedly spent more than one billion dollars per year to fund madrassas responsible for recruiting, mobilizing public opinion and training jihadis and other vehicles of Islamist militancy in Pakistan (Alexeiv, 2003). Prominent among these were the Jamaat-e-Islami's Rabita madrassas and those set up by the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

The Pakistani military, through its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), funneled Saudi and US money to these madrassas, which quickly became the breeding ground for training and radicalizing a generation of Afghani and Pakistani “holy warriors.”  They also set up “networks for Jihad” in Pakistan’s main urban centers (ICG Asia Report 2002, p.11). Special textbooks in Dari and Phustu, filled with violent images of guns, dead bodies and bombs and extolling Jihad designed by the Centre for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, were distributed at these madrassas. These remain in circulation in Afghanistan and in the Khyber Pkhtunkhawa (formerly North West Frontier Province-NWFP) province of Pakistan to date (Stephens and Ottaway, 2002).

Membership of madrassas, particularly those situated along the border with Afghanistan also grew with an influx of recruits from Central Asia, North Africa, Burma, Bangladesh, Chechnya and Afghan refugees. Estimates of foreign enrollment in madrassas vary from 10-50% of the total student body. Government policy under Zia allowed foreign madrassa students free entry and movement within the country simultaneously encouraging them to join the jihad in Afghanistan. Between 1979 and 1995 approximately 3,906 new madrassas were set up (ICG Asia Report 2002, p.9). Those that recorded the highest number of growth were the madrassas of the Deobandi and Ale Hadith sects, both of which shared a conservative and ultra-orthodox interpretation of Sunni Islam and also had the highest percentage of involvement in sectarian violence.

Madrassa proliferation did not end with Zia or with the end of the Afghan Jihad. Pakistani military patronage of these groups continued under civilian rule during the 90s. In fact, the largest jump in madrassa enrollment for the cohort aged 10 was for the period 1989-93, which coincided with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (Andrabi, Das, Khwaja and Zajnoc, 2005, p.5). These included Sunni jihadi proxies such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which were used to carry out operations in India-administered Kashmir and in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan. According to the Ministry of Education, in 2000 there were 7,000 madrassas in Pakistan. By 2003 that number had risen to 10,430 (ICG Asia Report 2002, p.3).  Extremist Sunni-Deobandi groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its later offshoot, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), which grew out of these jihadi madrassas also established headquarters primarily in Punjab. Their countrywide network of mosques and madrassas remain major centers of jihadi recruitment to date, providing recruits for internal sectarian conflicts, the “regional jihad” in Afghanistan and against India and the “global jihad” against the west (ICG Asia Report No.164, 2009). In fact, both the SSP and the LJ have been responsible for providing recruits, finances and weapons to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) contributing to and assisting in its rise. These groups are also accused of serving as al-Qaeda principal allies in the region (ICG Asia Report 2009, p.3).

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  • 1. These figures remain contested (see ICG Asia Report 2002, p. 2).