Madrasa Madness

A version of this appeared in Viewpoint Online Issue 51.

Madrasa Madness

“Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa.”

G Mortenson & D Relin, Three Cups of Tea,New York: Viking, 2006, p 5

“As the Pakistani government increases investment in secular education to counter radical madrasas, my Administration will increaseAmerica’s commitment.”

Barrack Obama

Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas, recently commented that Obama “has a different worldview and I think it’s, in part, molded out of a very different experience. Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrasas.” That particular rumor of Obama having attended a “madrasa” in Indonesia, started during the run up to the Presidential election, and is a part of a whole gambit of racist and Islamophobic rumors of Obama being Muslim that came to be called the ‘Muslim Smear.’ The belief that Obama is a Muslim persists to this day, and giving Obama a madrasa past or “background” is a way of marking him as a Muslim by way of raising the specter of extremism, for which Madrasa serves as code. In response, the Obama campaign pointed out that he, in fact, did not attend a madrasa but that he attended a regular public school in Indonesia. In line with how it handled all of the ‘Muslim Smears,’  the Obama Campaign did not address the Islamopohobia lurking barely beneath the surface. Neither did Obama point out that the word madrasa simply means school, and that many schools in the Islamicate world have that word in its title or are casually referred to as that.

Though Quranic studies were conducted in houses and mosques since the seventh century, Madrasa, as a pedagogical institution was established in the 10th century by the Grand Vizier of Suljuk Sultans in territories that comprise present dayIraq andIran. Madrasas sprouted throughout much of Islamdom and produced erudite scholars for a number of centuries. In the Indian Subcontinent, after the 1857 mutiny, the British changed the court language from Persian to English, which whittled the madrasa curriculum down to just religious law. Knowing English law and English language was required to be an administrator, instead of learning fiqh (jurisprudence), history, science, etc.  This meant that Quranic recitation and memorization came to be the primary educational services provided by a madrasa, whether in purpose built madrasas or in makeshift Quran-schools in the neighborhood mosque, which the children attended at an earlier age to learn Quran before enrolling in secular public schools or attended in the evenings as a supplement to their secular education at a public school. Only a slim minority of madrasa students goes on to study fiqh and other religious studies.

The drone’s eye view collapses histories, geographies, cultures, and lives into one combustible dangerous whole. “Books not bombs at Pakistan literature festival” screams the headline of the Associated Press report on Karachi Literature Festival. Peccavistan’s underground rockers are noticed if only for rocking on “even in a summer of Taliban violence.” Fashion models are supposed to have “thumbed a nose at Taliban” simply by walking down a catwalk in a luxury hotel, supposedly “under shadow of Taliban.” Daniyal Mueenudin warns of the coming revolt of the hungry and Ahmad Rashid of an extremist take over unless the victims of floods are helped, thereby smudging their humanity and rendering them as potential terrorists. Humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s book about his education initiative in Pakistan’s northern areas is subtitled as “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time” because, as Mortensen was allegedly told by his publisher, “terror sells.” Apparently, unless the prospective donor pisses his pants with fear, his/her pocket cannot be accessed. In places imagined as battlefields of the War on Terror, disaster relief or supporting education is not worthy enough on its own, unless it is billed as winning the hearts and mind of the (potentially) terrorist population.

So, what was remarkable in the recently launched Education Emergency campaign in Pakistan was not only the absence of fear mongering, but its attempt at debunking the “madrasa myth” – an unnecessary distraction from the campaign’s goals that the media and the professional critics of the said threat were sure to lap up. The Guardian reported that the campaign’s claim that 6% of Pakistani children attend madrasas has created some controversy. While the campaign marshals this figure to debunk myths about madrasas, critics, such as Parvez Hoodbhoy, showed concern at the “staggering number” of children attending madrasas. . Based on publically verified data, Andrabi et al however estimate that less than a percent of total enrolled Pakistani students attend a madrasa.[1] This, still, may not satisfy those that are alarmed at the presence of madrasas in their “orderly” and “modern” cities, or at madrasa students’ chanting the Quran all day “sporting little prayer caps”[2] and swarming around the city in the evenings. The question then is: Even if 6 % of all Pakistani children are enrolled in madrasas, so what? What does it matter? Why should that be a cause of concern?

Two assumptions underpin the alarmism around madrasas in general, and the number of children attending madrasas in particular. First, madrasas enroll youth from particular communities, or from a particular ethnicity, or from families with a certain kind of religiosity. Second, poverty and the State’s failure to provide access to education lead people to enroll their children in madrasas. Andrabi et al refute such spurious claims and “found almost no relationship between poverty and the use of madrasas.” In fact, none of the household level factors such as poverty, lack of alternative education options, ethnicity, religiosity, do not hold muster as factors related to madrasa enrolment either, since 75% of the household with one child enrolled in a madrasa have another child enrolled in a public or a private school. Yet, despite several studies stating that there is scant evidence of poverty being the cause of extremism and terrorism, madrasa reform and building affordable secular schools are held up as ways to “drain the swamp” that extremism and terrorism feeds on. A child that commits the Quran to memory, regarded as a prodigy, brings prestige, in this life and the other, to his/her family that celebrates the milestones in the child’s Quranic education and recitals. But in the narratives of war that frame policy recommendations, public advocacy, humanitarian aid, and philanthropic ventures, madrasas can only do one thing: “brainwash” impressionable youth; and there is only one way to see madrasa-enrolled children: future terrorists to be saved from themselves.

Grand narratives like promoting education to fight madrasa-bred extremism elide issues that are pressing but unglamorous. Consider the issue of school infrastructure. It is a very unsexy issue. When one can have monsters to fight and madhouses to reform, why would anyone want to campaign for, say, better toilets for schools? Might the high dropout rate in primary schools have some thing to do with “the drab appearance of buildings, inadequate facilities and an overall repulsive physical environment”? School toilets, if there are any, are inoperable, filthy, and dangerous. Consequently, children have to relieve themselves outdoors, which leaves them vulnerable to diseases such as diarrhea that cause 4000 deaths across the globe and at the least “contribute towards absenteeism and the dropout rate in schools.” The substantial gendered impact of poor state of school infrastructure needs to be taken a stock of, even if there are no bearded fanatics blowing up girl’s schools for the heroic to battle. Surely, one can campaign for greater access to education and improvement of infrastructure, better curriculum, and more humanities and social studies, at the same time, and in my mind, perhaps in that order of emphasis. That is, if one is not obsessed with the “row after row of these burqa women.”


[1] Tahir Andrabi (PomonaCollege),  Jishnu Das (The World Bank), Asim Ijaz Khwaja (HarvardUniversity) and Tristan Zajonc (HarvardUniversity), “Madrassa Metrics: The Statistics and Rhetoric of Religious Enrollment in Pakistan”, Beyond Crisis: Re-evaluating Pakistan, ed. Naveeda Khan (Londonand New Delhi: Routledge, 2009), .http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/akhwaja/papers/madrassas_beyondcrisis_final.pdfAndrabi et al quote an example from The 9-11 Commission Report, that mentions, almost in passing, that “according to a Karachi’s police commander, there are 859 madrasas teaching more than 200,000 youngsters in his city alone” without any validation of this claim. Similarly Ahmad Rashid in his popular book “Taliban” states that in 1998  there “were over half a million student” enrolled in madrasas, based on an intelligence report presented in 1992 to the cabinet of Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. General Parvez Musharraf, in a 2001 interview to the financial Times gave the figure of 1 million madrasa students, The Philadelphia Inquirer, in November 2001, quoted 700,000 madrasa students, Washington Post, in March 2002, claimed 500,000 students, and L.A. Times, on 29 June 2002, reported 1.5 million students, a figure repeated by The Washington Post a few weeks later. The international Crisis Group stated that 33 percent of the total enrolled students inPakistan were enrolled in madrasas! This last figure came about as an error in transcription that mistook total enrollment to be 1.9 million instead of 19 million, but going by the alarmism around madrasas, it would still be believable. While data collection issues – such as the possible labeling of evening Quran school attending children as madrasa students – need to be addressed to present a truer picture of madrasa enrollment, belief in high madrasa enrollment in Pakistan is conventional wisdom whereby, as Andrabi et al say,“we accept these flawed estimates simply because they are acceptable. However, under a more demanding empirical lens, they fail to hold up. The reality is unrelated to conventional wisdom.”
[2] Pervez Hoodbhoy, “The Saudi-ization of Pakistan,” Newsline, Jan 2009.


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2 Responses to Madrasa Madness

  1. Jakob says:

    it’s sad that andrabi and das are not referred to more often generally in the debates on Pakistan, especially when it comes to making claims on data. their papers (for example also the ‘In Aid We Trust’ – http://rugpundits.com/2010/09/25/learning-from-recent-experiences/) are really mostly very very good.

    and then i agree one has to deal with these arguments separately. Are the enrollment numbers correct (probably not), if not what do they amount to really? and How is Madrasa Education linkable to unwanted extremism?. If we haven’t got clarity on the latter, just stating high numbers for the earlier and claiming that’s all bad is lame. but i have lost hope that in this century there will be a rethinking on that. Before that all madaris in pakistan will turn into iPad2 learning hubs.

  2. Pingback: Muslim Rageology | Greased Cartridge

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