Schools providing a modern education in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and tribal areas struggle to survive as Islamist trusts running madrassas force parents to send their children to religious schools.
Haji Nadir Khan surveys the ruins of a state school in Pakistan’s north-western Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
“This was one of the rooms they blew up…and this is the other one,” says Khan, entering a bombed-out room open to the elements. “As you can see, the windows were destroyed, the walls were damaged. The blast damaged all of this area. And even the roof fell,” he notes sadly.
Two years ago, Taliban militants attacked this school. Abandoned since the assault, the ruins stand as a constant reminder of the threat to secular education in Pakistan.
Khan donated land to help found this school. He's been pleading with the authorities to rebuild it. But he realises that any such help is unlikely to come.
A few kilometres away, a well-constructed madrassa is humming to the sound of students reciting Koranic verses as they rock back and forth.
With its marbled floor and ambitious expansion plans, this madrassa has seen a dramatic rise in student enrolment ever since it opened its doors in the 1990s. The Jamia Uloom-ul-Islamia school is backed by a well-funded religious group known for its close ties to the Taliban. Students here are taught to memorise the Koran. Critical thinking is shunned in favour of rote learning.
Teaching ‘jihad and violence’
Madrassas have been flourishing in this impoverished South Asian nation ever since then military ruler General Zia ul-Haq introduced an aggressive Islamisation programme in the 1990s.
But a high madrassa-enrolment rate is not necessarily because Pakistani parents are opposed to a secular, modern education.
Rather, they have little choice. As the teachers at a local school run by the Bacha Khan Foundation – a Pakistani NGO named after the legendary Khan Abdual Ghaffar Khan, a colonial-era secular Pashtun hero – well know.
Azra Gul struggles to keep attendance from dropping at her school while madrassas flourish across the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and the tribal belt near the Afghan border.
“The parents are being threatened to [force them to] send children to religious schools to control their minds – where they will be taught everything related to 'jihad', and violence. They are doing this to accomplish their mission of sending them to fight,” said Gul.
Opposing a ‘Western’ education
At the Jamia Uloom-ul-Islamia madrassa, the head cleric is firmly opposed to a modern education system.
“Schools do not teach about Islam, which is a problem,” he says, referring to secular state and private schools. “They focus on worldly affairs and Western education. But the people of this region give more importance to religion. The education system in schools is Western and is not in line with our value system or culture, and they want us to adopt that but it will never happen.”
In a country that spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on education, there is growing alarm that the head cleric’s vision of education has gained a foothold that will be hard to dislodge.
More than 22,000 seminaries are registered across Pakistan, accounting for about 200,000 full-time students, or 1.5 million students including those enrolled part-time, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Most of these institutions are run by five major seminary boards, known as wifaqs, with little or no oversight by the government.
Back at his destroyed school, Khan says the Taliban still pose a threat to education in his village.
“Actually the Taliban are still in the surrounding areas, frequenting our village too,” he explained. “So I hired a guard, gave him a gun, for him to keep an eye on any suspicious activity. The school is still under threat and the Taliban can attack us again.”
In the provincial capital of Peshawar alone, more than 100 schools have been destroyed in the last decade. So far, only 12 of them have been rebuilt and the staff and students at these institutions live in constant fear of attacks. Given the circumstances, observers believe that political radicalisation of students through madrassas is almost inevitable.