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EDITORIAL: Like in the past, the long-standing struggle to reform the madrassas has once again run into snags and evasion by means of entangling the current government in legal and official complexities. As an indicator of this fact, it needs only to be pointed out that despite efforts by successive governments stretching back to 2003, so far only 295 out of an estimated 30,000 madrassas in the country have applied for registration. Nor have their sources of financing or lists of students been forthcoming. The rampant practice of building madrassas on government or private land through encroachment could not be checked either. It may be recalled how the Lal Masjid clerics and their student body in the affiliated madrassa next door invited a bloody tragedy in Islamabad. Every effort over the years to streamline the affairs of madrassas and bring them into the mainstream as far as education is concerned has been unsuccessful because of the resistance of the clerics organised in five main madrassa boards that function collectively under the banner of the Ittehad-i-Tanzeemaat Madaris Pakistan. This august body held a meeting in Lahore on January 25, 2021 where a decision was taken to offer suggestions to the government on the registration issue. Registration was ‘agreed’ after prolonged discussions between the government and the madrassa boards as part of the enactment of the Islamabad Capital Territory Waqf Properties Act (ICTWPA) 2020 on September 24, 2020. This law forms part of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) requirements. Despite the ‘agreement’, the madrassa boards took up the matter on October 2, 2020 after the Education Ministry advertised in the national dailies that the madrassas should get themselves registered in their respective districts. Now the clerics and their students have taken up cudgels against the ICTWPA 2020 through a protest on January 26, 2021 before the National Press Club, Islamabad, claiming the government had backstabbed them through a law that violates their integrity and they would therefore continue boycotting the registration process.

Madrassa reform is not a new idea in Pakistan. As long ago as General Ayub Khan’s era, when Auqaf departments were first set up, the attempt to register madrassas was stymied by the formation of the five boards representing the Barelvi, Shia, Deobandi, Ahle Hadith and Jamaat-i-Islami madrassas that then claimed that all madrassas were managed by them. The idea was resurrected by General Pervez Musharraf in June 2001 with the formal registration process starting in 2003. The pattern of the madrassa boards’ evasion of registration and reform shows that even after successive governments have discussed and agreed the way forward, the boards simply shift the goal posts. Why this has happened and what it signifies can only be understood if we glance back at the mushroom growth of madrassas, thanks to Gulf Arab funding, during the Afghan wars that then fed recruits into the so-called jihad outfits that later mutated into active militant organisations. Foreign funding may be a thing of the past, at least substantially, but in the meantime the madrassas have acquired the kind of heft and clout that would be the envy of any political formation. To hold onto this advantage, reinforced by street power, the madrassas have resisted all attempts to bring them into the mainstream through their registration and reform of their curricula. Since the madrassas’ financing remains obscure and non-transparent, if not a closely guarded secret, this situation could run afoul of the FATF requirements. Pakistan simply cannot afford to invite the draconian punishments under the FATF. The Lal Masjid proved how difficult it is to restrain these elements from taking the law into their own hands and challenging the writ of the state, but a combination of persuasion and pressure has to be applied to straighten out a long-standing threat to state and society that now could drive the country into dire economic and other circumstances if Pakistan falls foul of the FATF conditions.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021