The consequences of an Islamic education
By Rooshanie Ejaz, HRS
(Islamabad): In light of recent debates in Norway regarding religious schools, it is important to take a look at the madrassas of Pakistan. It is only when one thoroughly understands them that one can make an informed judgement as to what a purportedly “mainstream” Muslim education in Norway would be likely to entail.
Madrasses have been around since the birth of Pakistan. The inspiration for madrasses can be traced back to the “purist” Islamic movements which took over the subcontinent during the 19th and 18th centuries, and which perceived the philosophies of life of the last Mughal rulers as hedonistic and un-Islamic. The subcontinent’s abundance of food and shelter made it possible for individuals to open up their homes to young children who had no other chance for an education, or to children whose parents wanted them to have an Islamic education.
Madrassas have evolved since then. In 1947, there were 245 of them in Pakistan; now the number is said to be well over 20,000, with a total enrolment of about 2 million students. Even if one takes into account the country’s rapid population growth, it is clear that in the last two decades there has been an exponential growth in the number of madrassas.
This growth can be attributed to two major factors. One, the Pakistani state strongly encouraged and supported the opening of madrassas across the country during the 1980s. Throughout General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship, the Afghan-Soviet war was being fought with open support for the Mujahedeen from Pakistan and the US. This created a good deal of fervour, which led to the open recruitment of young fighters in rural Pakistan. In this situation, madrassas functioned rather as Mujahedeen nurseries. Their growth was not controlled, and was certainly not registered. Currently only a few thousand madrasses are officially registered – and even those are registered with organizationally weak government bodies which have shown no ability to reform or control any aspect of curriculum at these institutions.
The second major factor is the increasing polarization and Islamization in the world in general. In recent decades, sectarian violence has been on the rise. Money has flown into Pakistan’s madrassas from all over the world. This might explain why even when the Pakistani government has tried to control madrassas by reforming their finances, it has failed – for some 75% of their funding comes from abroad.
With Pakistan’s population climbing steadily and its economy faltering, poor families that have more children than they can support are all but forced to send one or two of them to madrassas. The madrasses provide free food and shelter and claim to provide an education for children who would otherwise receive none. Children are usually sent far away from home; most have no communication with their families. Some families don’t ever see their boys again, for they become so radicalized that they set off for a life of jihad as soon as they’re big enough to pick up an AK-47.
The madrassas in Pakistan, then, are a well-rooted and well-funded phenomenon with many problems. A recent survey by the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (ISPR) established that there had been a 90% increase in the number of new madrassas between 1988 and 2000. This is a massive jump.
For purposes of comparison, ISPR surveyed students and teachers from many madrassas, private schools, and universities in urban areas. The results clearly show that madrassa students are more likely to hold opinions that incline them to support violence than are students who acquire a more well-rounded education at the country’s public and private schools.
When asked if non-Muslims in the country should be given equal rights, an unsettling 80% of madrassa students say no; by contrast, 78% of students in public and private educational institutions support equal rights regardless of religion. The percentages are similar on the question of women’s rights: some 77% of madrassa students believe that women should not enjoy the same rights as men (those surveyed included boys as young as 6 or 7 years old), while 76% of students at public and private institutions believe that they should.
It is pertinent to mention that there are no female teachers at madrassas. Those positions are held by men known as ulemas who consider the jobs their personal fiefdoms. Whenever a call for reform is heard from secular Pakistanis, it is quelled because these ulemas feel that it is no one’s business but their own what they teach the young boys placed in their care. The issue here is that these seminaries glorify jihad and thus encourage violence. At most of them, moreover, extreme punishments – including brutal beatings – are meted out to disobedient children.
An especially gruesome statistic turns up in another recent survey in Karachi. It showed that 21% of madrassa students admit to having been subjected to sexual abuse either by a teacher or an older student. Of these students, 20% said they had been raped. (The actual figures are surely much higher, since most sexual abuse goes unreported.) Living in Pakistan, I have heard many stories. A friend, whose home overlooked a madrassa (they are present in everyone’s backyard; land encroachment is another misdeed openly committed by Madrassas), saw a teacher sexually assault a young boy. My friend pitied the boy but could do nothing to help him.
So it is that we have very young boys, unaccompanied by women or any family members, living in restricted, prison-like environments in which they are beaten, sexually abused, and constantly brainwashed with the idea that violent jihad is the key to Islam’s success – and the path to prosperity for Muslim victims of poverty and deprivation such as themselves. Dina Temple puts it well: “No one thought to ask about what would happen next … nearly an entire generation came of age in a peculiar all-male world where the only concern was the Koran, Sharia law and the glorification of jihad.” These are, in short, damaged young boys – and the damage done to them is systematic, organized, planned. From a very early age, they are the targets of psychological manipulation, control, and indoctrination.
There are exceptions to the rule. A handful of madrassas are run by genuinely moderate Islamic instructors who teach tolerance and the sciences as part of their curriculum. But these schools are only a drop in an ocean; they don’t have anything like the critical mass necessary to shift the tide. Which leads to the next question: are all religiously driven institutions unable to turn out functioning members of society?
No. Just look at Pakistan’s convent schools in Pakistan. Some of them, like St. Patrick’s High School in Karachi, have been around for over 150 years. Among St. Patrick’s many distinguished alumni are two prime ministers and three mayors. The nuns who teach at these schools are obviously very religious; they do not hide their Christianity in any way. Although there have been instances of abuse and mistreatment of students at some of these schools, the majority of young people who have been graduated from them have pleasant memories of their education.
The reason for the difference is obvious. Madrassas and Islamic schools which strive to offer a purely Islamic education are much more concerned with spreading the ideology of political Islam than with giving children a well-rounded education. They literally buy children from poor families and abuse their power over these charges for political gain.
It doesn’t take much, after all, to indoctrinate a child. All you have to do is tell him or her that God wants you to hate and be intolerant. Until and unless the Pakistani government makes registration and curriculum reform mandatory for running a madrassa, they will continue on their current path.
In Norway, there shouldn’t even be a debate regarding the opening of Islamic schools. For a country facing severe integration issues as a result of uncontrolled immigration, it would be sheer folly to provide yet another place where parents can “protect” their children from Norwegian culture and values and thereby continue the vicious cycle of polarization.