Taming Pakistan’s madrassas?


    A tall order

    From the very beginning, the manner in which the ruling party has handled the National Action Plan (NAP) has become an example on what not to do when tackling terrorism.

    Progress has been slow, and never steady. Many experts have repeatedly touted the challenge that seminaries have posed and it is true that the government has its work cut out for it. From regulating the curriculum to keeping their finances in check — the issue of terrorism is no longer one that can be nipped in the bud, this is a full-fledged tumour that needs some tricky surgical manoeuvres.

    And in a long line of security related tasks that the government has conveniently left the army to deal with, the madrassas seem like just another tick on the list. It is no surprise that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Raheel Sharif had to be present in a recent meeting with the Ulema of Tanzeem Ittehadul Madaris to break the news that their funding was going to be scrutinised. When it comes to the NAP the government has very willingly given up its writ whenever it has started to feel the heat.

    The irony at this point in time is that even Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken note of how progress on the NAP is less than desirable. Sharif had asked the federation and provinces to coordinate and produce better results. This is only a few weeks after Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif had asserted that NAP was on track in Punjab.

    Why the delayed actions?

    Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Central Information Secretary, Shireen Mazari, feels that the government seems to have both the capacity and ability to tackle the issue, but continues to refuse to do so. “It is sad that the civilian leadership, which should have taken charge of NAP, lacks the will to implement it. It took the COAS having to sit in on the meeting on madrassas to get NAP translated into actual action. The government has the infrastructure to implement NAP but it is an issue of will and interests. It can do so but does not want to do so,” she told DNA.

    Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has notoriously enjoyed being a right wing party. Critics have at times wondered whether their associations and mindset are what’s keeping them for making a real dent with the NAP. “PML-N is right wing but that should not mean it should support proscribed groups. I cannot say what is preventing government from acting on NAP. It does take it seriously but is unable to muster the will to act on some of its core points,” Mazari said.

    Minister of Information, Mass-media Broadcasting and National Heritage Pervaiz Rashid is no stranger to how dangerous speaking out against madrassas can at times be. During May of this year, Rashid came under fire for criticising religious seminaries.

    “Every government has people that are in favour of it and those who are against it. The people who are against the ruling party know that they can’t criticise the action plan because people will go after them”

    While talking to DNA about the issue, Rashid said that there is a great political divide that runs extremely deep. People who criticise the government are nothing more than troublemakers. “Every government has people that are in favour of it and those who are against it. The people who are against the ruling party know that they can’t criticise the action plan because people will go after them. So instead they enjoy such trivial things, which is nothing more than a blame game. They’re just political statements and have nothing to do with reality,” he said.

    “A political party or wing of the state has to work on creating laws, then deciding principles, and creating a strategy and then handing it over to the institutions that will implement it. So statements pitting the army against the government are made by people who want to make these policies weak,” Rashid asserted.

    “Such statements are made by people who want to make these policies weaker but their words have nothing to do with the reality. The reality is that the NAP is the will of the people in the country; the will that they want to remove terrorism from their country and that will was created through political parties that represent the people of Pakistan,” he added.

    No crackdown… just victimisation

    On the other hand, All Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Tahir Ashrafi says that there isn’t a crackdown happening at all.

    “There is no crackdown at all. There have been some checks, and yes, there have been some unfair incidents, but we have cooperated in full with the government. The Pakistan Ulema Council, Tahaffuz-e-Madaris-e-Deeniya, etc fully cooperated. And the checks have been completed,” he said.

    Ashrafi explained that the madrassas came forward on their own and asked the government to tell them which place was providing extremist or terror related teachings. “We told them to tell us who was involved in these activities and we ourselves would help shut those places down. We are in touch with the provincial and federal governments, too. There is no problem,” he said.

    Although Ashrafi does feel that the police needs better training so that they can handle such assessments and checks in a better fashion. “I believe that our policemen have not been groomed properly. In some cases the manner in which they conduct themselves was not appropriate,” Ashrafi complained.

    The Ulema Council Chairman’s point of view is a far cry from organisations that had reacted with extreme anger at the news that they would be subjected to scrutiny. To say that the madrassas were okay with the news would be like calling the sun brown, the reaction has been touted by some as the reason the COAS had to step in. Ashrafi agrees that the government is a little lost when it comes to NAP.

    “I don’t think the interior minister understands how things are done. Instead of resolving the issue he makes things work. Even now he has given the impression that only a few organisations or madrassas are involved in terrorism related acts. People in the government don’t understand the sensitivities and spirit of the NAP,” he said.

    “What can be a bigger proof than the prime minister himself saying he’s not happy with progress?” he asked.

    “I believe that people like Chaudhry Nisar have a soft spot for extremist people and he has tried to mess things up but I don’t think it can go on this way. The COAS would never want the consensus to be damaged, or allow a minister or an institution to ruin things. The PM feels the same, I’m sure,” he added.

    Asharfi warned that any actions that tried to derail madrassas would not be taken lightly and appropriate reactions would ensue. He also pointed out that singling out madrassas is not a particularly wise approach.

    “They are not to be blamed and they are not the source of terrorism. You can’t say that one set of people are all extremists. The Safoora incident is in front of us all, what madrassa did that man come from?” he questioned.

    At the end of the day the fact remains that not all madrassas are created equal. Not in terms of their involvement in terror related activities, and also not in terms of their reaction to NAP. Many madrassas are declining to reveal where their money comes from. The government has begun shutting down accounts but it seems like an uphill task. The loggerheads are here to stay for the time being.

    Mother of all policy shifts?

    Political analyst and author Wahajat Masood feels like the tussle between the government and the madrassas needs to be looked at from a different perspective. It’s not that the government lacks the writ to tackle madrassas because for a very long time the state had no need to.

    “For the last 20 years the policy towards religious elements has been dictated by the army. And the political forces are paralysed and in no position whatsoever to play with these religious elements. It’s not just a question of the government’s capacity to deal with the issue, but also a question of them fiddling with a policy that was vindicated by the army,” he told DNA.

    “The political forces knew exactly where the fulcrum of the power lay. That is the reason that state institutions and political forces appear to be unable to handle religious elements, and the religious elements enjoyed the impunity that was offered by real power brokers,” he said.

    “The arrival of the current military chief had changed the situation greatly. “If the law enforcement agencies appear to be in a better condition today, it’s not because of a certain person but because the institutional policy of the military has undergone a transformation”

    Masood said that the arrival of the current military chief had changed the situation greatly. “If the law enforcement agencies appear to be in a better condition today, it’s not because of a certain person but because the institutional policy of the military has undergone a transformation,” he said as a matter of fact.

    The PML-N has often been accused of acting with stoic impotency in the face of terrorism because of its own affiliations with extremists and terror outfits. “Being a right wing political party, being a terrorist outfit, and being an instrument of state policy inside and outside the country is an altogether different thing,” Masood said.

    “Yes, it’s a right wing party but it is a political party that has had a role in governance in the last 20 years. They need to negotiate things as well; they need to run things as well. Terrorists are not bound whereas political forces whether they are right wing or left wing are bound by certain dictates of the ground realities,” he said while pointing out that the idea that a mainstream party could shun or avoid extremists, considering what Pakistan’s policies have looked like in the past decades, was impossible.

    “Appeasing religious elements is not something that only they have done and has nothing to do with whether a party is right wing or left wing,” he added.

    If a policy created by the army has resulted in the mushrooming of madrassas, then perhaps it is fitting that Raheel Sharif be the face of change in these meetings. However, Masood thinks that line of thinking won’t work, especially because Pakistan is a democratic country.

    “If — and it’s a big if — there is really a change in policy, then it is very closely associated with the fact that in previous years it was the unspoken will of the establishment which was hampering our political leadership. In that case one would think that it is okay for the COAS to be in these meetings,” Masood said.

    “However, as a democratic person I do not think it augurs well for the country’s constitutional scheme that we have, including the parliament and judiciary, that the military leadership should be visible everywhere and on every occasion,” he added.

    “In the interest of the people of Pakistan and the country, we cannot harbour any semblance of terrorism whatsoever. That is a tall order to demand because this is something we have been nurturing for six decades. It will take a lot of time. It has permeated into almost every aspect of our lives and society,” Masood warned.

    Will the government be able to take its NAP responsibilities seriously? “They will have to… there is no other choice,” Mazari said resolutely.

    And whether the government wants to face the music or not, the fact is that it really is out of options. It can do nothing but act; there is no other choice, indeed.