by Nadeem Iqbal
(IPS) ISLAMABAD --
win God's favor, 45-year-old Muhammad Mazhar, a taxi driver, enrolled his youngest son in a religious seminary in Pakistan and his eldest in a secular school.
Today, his youngest son, 15, is learning the Koran by rote, but not acquiring skills to earn a living. Mazhar's eldest son, 20, is in the first year of a chartered accountancy course, considered a good career in this South Asian country.
By sending at least one male child to religious education, Mazhar is following a rural tradition prevalent among poor families.
Apart from earning God's blessing, another reason for doing this is the fact that education as well as lodging is free at Islamic schools or "madrasah."
This is among the reasons why some one million to 1.7 million students, most of them between the ages of five to 18 and from poor families, go to madrasah in Pakistan, a country of 140 million people.
But it is time to improve both the quality of education at madrasah and to encourage more enrolment in the mainstream schools, officials and some experts say.
Some students are eager to learn more subjects. Fourteen-year-old Abdul Ghafar, who goes to the Shah Faisal Jamai Islamia madrasah here, says he is studying how to interpret the Koran and use it in everyday problems. But "a student must also be studying English and science," he says.
Reforming religious education, however, is far from a simple matter.
In fact, for the country's top poet Ahmad Faraz, many madrasah are beyond reform.
"These madrasah should be abolished and a option be given to students in the secular schools that whoever wants to get special Islamic education could opt for those subjects," says Faraz, who also heads the National Book Foundation that prepares textbooks.
So far, the government's most recent effort, over more than eight months, to make the teaching methods in some 10,000 Islamic schools "market intensive" flopped. It is caught between two forces: a religious clergy lobby and calls for reforms under international pressure in the post-Sept. 11 environment.
Attempts to reform the madrasah are far from new, and under the current military government include a law passed in August last year that created a Madrasah Education Board.
That law aims to have Islamic education along with subjects of general education system, while maintaining its autonomous character. The law requires the registration, regulation, standardization and uniformity of curricula and standards in madrasah.
An education official said that the program of introducing new curriculum in madrasah the result of a survey of religious schools -- was in fact devised in 2000.
But reform efforts today have been complicated by western pressure on reforming madrasah due to the view that they encourage militancy. Sensing foreign and western forces behind current reforms, the religious lobby here is digging in.
There was also some controversy about the reforms with the resignation as religious minister in early August of Dr. Mehmood Ghazi.
Ghazi quit after he failed to bring the religious lobby on board a draft law that would get madrasah registered voluntarily with the government, apart from subjecting the foreign funding they get, mainly from Arab countries, to official scrutiny.
The registration of madrasah is actually part of the madrasah board ordinance passed last year.
The government also asked the religious schools to teach English and science, for which it promised to provide textbooks and teachers on the state's payroll.
But at the same time, the schools are to be barred from teaching religious hatred or extremism. They would not be able to take in foreign students below the age of 18 and would have to subject older students' admission to official clearance.
These are part of the government's efforts to curb religious extremism, which President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in August called a scourge on Pakistan and Islam.
Pakistan's interior ministry estimates that 10 to 15 percent of madrasah might have links with internal sectarian strife or militant, terrorist activities outside.
The World Bank in Pakistan's Country Assistance Strategy, issued in June, estimates that 15 to 20 percent of religious schools are involved in military-related training or teachings.
In an interview, Ghazi declined to say that he resigned because of his failure in pushing religious education reforms. But of the religious lobby, he says: "They have certain reservations regarding future independence and autonomy of religious education."
Wary of a backlash, the government did not promulgate the registration law at once but made the draft public and said it would be enforced within a week. Still, objections from the religious lobby forced it to defer the plan indefinitely.
Now, this task has been assigned to the interior ministry, headed by a retired army general. That brings to four the ministries involved in madrasah reform apart from the foreign office, the religious ministry and the education ministry.
In early August, a meeting with religious leaders convened by Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider set up a committee of three government representatives and six "ulama" (scholars) -- to review the proposed law. No deadline was set for amending it.
Mufti Munibur Rahman, a spokesman for the Alliance of Religious Schools, says that the committee was told that the religious leadership would not accept restrictions on the religious schools' independence.
He said that curbing the admission of foreign students below the age of 18 years old would harm Pakistan's status as an Islamic state.
But in a July report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said that reforming religious schools is not only about religion or curbing extremism, but the larger goal of giving relevant education to Pakistanis.
"Madrasah have a long history in Pakistan and in Muslim societies generally," its report said. "They serve socially important proposes and it is reasonable for a government to seek to modernize and adapt rather than eliminate them."
The report, called "Madrasah, Extremism and the Military," recommended that foreign aid to Pakistani education stress the rebuilding a secular system that has been allowed to decay for three decades.
It added, "Militancy is only a part of the madrasah problem. The phenomenon of 'jihad' (holy war) is independent of madrasah and most 'jihadis' do not come from these schools."
"Pro-jihad madrasah only play a supporting role mainly as a recruiting ground for militant movements. Most madrasah do not impart military training or education, but they do sow the seeds of extremism in the minds of the students," it added.
September 6 2002 (http://albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.