Deobandi madrassas provide the ideological roots of Taliban, ASWJ and LeJ – Farman Kakar


Prior to the era of Afghan jihad, debates regarding madrassa reforms revolved around the need for harmonising religious education with its secular counterpart. The increasing association of madaris with militancy of various hues is a more recent phenomenon. Whereas Islamic revolution of the Shia variety in Iran and Saudi Arabia’s counterweighing measures in its wake and Zia’s Islamisation programme — mainly a Sunni affair — radicalised religious schools, Afghan jihad within the context of Cold War was the prime factor responsible for the overt militarisation of madaris in Pakistan.

Mainstreaming religious schools has been an old riddle revisiting the disturbed society. In recent times, the colonial British were the first to conceive madrassa reforms in British India. They believed that madaris did not impart what they billed “useful learning”. The syllabi taught at seminaries were antiquated and rendered the religious schools incapable of coping with the requirements of age. The British efforts were geared towards modernising the religious education in congruence with the government sponsored education system. The government not only financially supported those madaris which would implement government reforms but also employed the graduates of seminaries. Post-partition, the rhetoric of reform survived.

The talk of madrassa reforms, much like during the colonial period, centered on bringing religious seminaries in conformity with the state-led education system. With Islam set to perform a huge role in public sphere, madaris were considered as institutions which were necessary to preserve the Islamic identity of the state. The idea behind Ayub’s madrassa reforms was in line with the British emphasis on requirement of useful learning in the religious institutes. His reform plan envisaged the introduction of same primary education syllabus and teaching schedule in seminaries as were employed by the government sector.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to co-opt the religious right. First the state’s nationalisation of education system did not cover madrassa sector. Secondly, at primary and secondary school levels, Arabic was introduced as compulsory subject with clergy employed as teachers. Thirdly, the highest degree awarded by Deobandi seminaries affiliated with its federation Wafaq-ul-Madaris was made at par with a master degree in Islamic studies and Arabic of government university provided the madrassa graduate had also passed a bachelor level English course. Fourthly, Bhutto signed agreements with the Arab countries for the promotion of Arabic literature and Islamic studies in Pakistan.

Under Zia, the Halepota Report proposed the inclusion of some modern subjects in madaris and improving the economic condition of madaris through Zakat funds and protecting madaris autonomy. The highest degree of Wafaq was conditionally made equivalent to Master of Arts degree in Arabic or Islamiyat. Nevertheless, from mid 1980s, madrassa connection with militancy of various ilk has been an additional disquiet along with the traditional concern of introducing secular subjects in religious education.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan called for concomitant American involvement in the Pak-Afghan region to remove the Soviets from Afghanistan. The US hugely invested in jihadi infrastructure in Pakistan. Under the US patronage, the Centre for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha devised special books that would inculcate jihadi values and impart militant training. Written in Pashto and Dari, over 13 million of these books were distributed in Afghan refugee camps and Pakistani madaris.

From 1980 to 1992, of the total US$10 billion that mujahideen received in economic and covert military assistance, US contributed $4 to 5 billion. With Dara Adam Khel bazaar becoming a transaction point for the sell and purchase of American and Chinese weapons meant for fighting the Soviets and Afghan government, the militarisation of tribal areas, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the country at large across religious, sectarian, political and tribal lines was complete.

The Jamaat Islami’s Rabita madaris, mainly a product of military-sponsored Afghan jihad, were responsible to produce jihadi literature, mobilise public opinion and recruit and train people to fight against the Soviets.

Out of a total of 107 madaris, 41 happened to be in the Afghan border region. Madaris associated with JUI-F and (S), on the other hand, encouraged students to fight alongside the mujahideen. Nevertheless, after the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan the Taliban movement recruited hugely from the latter Deobandi chains of madaris located in NWFP and Balochistan.

After the end of Afghan jihad following the withdrawal of Soviets from Afghanistan, Afghan war veterans of Pakistan’s origin either joined hands with Kashmiri militants or transformed their jihad from fighting communists to fighting sectarian rivals back at home.

Whereas TNFJ was founded in 1979 in the aftermath of Iranian revolution, Deobandi splinter groups such as SSP — an offshoot of JUI — emerged during the Afghan jihad. All banned sectarian parties and militant outfits, ranging from SSP to Jaish-e-Mohammed (JM) to LeJ to LeT to Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariah Mohammedi (TNSM) to Tehreek-e-Fiqhe Jafaria (TFJ) to Sipah-e Mohammed (SeM) have either their own madaris or have strong madrassa connection in terms of recruitment or at least sympathisers. Either way these madaris produce extremely biased inflammatory literature engendering militant mind.

In 1995, a government report compiled under Benazir Bhutto revealed the existence of 746 madaris in Punjab alone and more than 120 of religious seminaries in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa involved in sectarian activities. In an interview in January 2002, then Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider conceded to the existence of 285 madaris ascribing to militant outfits such as SSP and SeM. Much like Musharraf’s government, the succeeding PPP’s government failed to stem the growth of religious militancy. Reversing the trend of Islamist extremism necessitates a holistic approach.

Countervailing measures aimed at de-radicalization would entail the US’s reactivating of the defunct bi-partisan bill Reconstruction of Opportunity Zones (ROZs) — aimed at generating economic development in the Pak-Afghan border region — Pakistan’s ending of the spoiler role of some countries and Islamabad’s severance of alleged umbilical cord with the non-state actors as instruments of state policies. Moreover, expunging hate material from the syllabi of schools and madaris is a must which governments have been avoiding on risk to the very foundation of the state and society.