Neither militancy nor its connection to religious madrassas are, of course, unknown in Pakistan. Yet even after the most horrific terrorist attack, the government of Pakistan are not cracking down on madrassas whose clerics incite hatred and sectarianism and both justify and breed militancy.

By Sehar Mushtaq

In the aftermath of the barbaric attack on a Peshawar school that killed 141 people, including 132 children, the fight against terrorism and militancy got renewed attention in Pakistan. Both civilian and military leadership has called for rigorous measures to obliterate militancy, including calling for a stop to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Taliban, but unfortunately there has not been active debate on madrassas reformation, a task long overdue.

Madrassas, or religious seminaries, are important mode of religious education in Pakistan. According to the Ministry of Religious Affairs almost 20,000 madrassas were registered by 2010 and the number is continuously growing. Since there is significant number of unregistered madrassas the round off unofficial estimate are about 22,000. While many from poor families seek to make their children better off by adhering to religious values and take advantage of free education with availability of food and shelter, but in a stark contrast to the anticipated role of the madrassas, a considerable number of these seminaries have fanned militancy, sectarianism, terrorism and intolerance by indoctrinating their students. It is not dubious to state that almost all sectarian militant organizations and their armed off shoots had strong links with these seminaries which mushroomed under the political patronage of President Zia-ul-Haq in his so-called Islamization process during 1978-1988. On the other hand there were two important events abroad that further aggravated and exacerbated the situation, the 1979 Iranian revolution and the Afghan-Soviet war in the subsequent year. The mushrooming and politicization of madrassas in the aftermath of these events had serious impact on Pakistan’s internal security and madrassas discourse, which was thought to be relatively innocuous before 1980s.

Politicization, Militarization and Radicalization of Madrassas

Fearing a religious revolution like in neighboring Iran, and to counter Shia assertiveness, President Zia funded and established Sunni seminaries in length and breadth of Pakistan. While Iran kept on funding Shia organizations, Gulf countries also played a decisive role by directing huge amounts of funds to Sunni seminaries and organizations. Hate literature against the different sects was taught and the result was the formation of many sectarian Sunni-Shia militant organizations such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Jafriya Pakistan, Lashkr-e-Jhangvi, Lashkr-e-Taiba etc. Most of these foreign funded seminaries were controlled by these militant organizations and were in turn crucial in providing recruits for them. On the other hand, the Afghan war culminated in the militarization and indoctrination of madrassa students. The concept of Jihad was used to satisfy the ideological ground while the Pakistani military and secret intelligence agencies trained madrassa students using funds and ammunitions floated from Saudi Arabia and United States. Many of the prominent figures who later became the heads of militant groups were alumni of Dar ul Uloom Haqqania, a seminary in Khyber Pakhtunkhaw, i.e. Mullah Omer (Taliban), Jalaludin Haqqani (the Haqanni network) and Asim Umar (Al Qaeda).


Pakistani leadership did not predict the outcome of mushrooming and radicalization of these seminaries, which became safe dens and breeding grounds for militancy in the 1990s and especially in the post 9/11 era. Sectarian clashes and killings became everyday business and armed and trained fighters became hard to control. However, some of these were then channeled to Kashmir to combat Indian influence, while the remaining militants dreamed of gaining a similar supremacy in Pakistan as they had gained in the Afghan war, which set their morals high. The mushrooming of madrassas made it difficult for government to regulate them. Moreover, the alleged role of Pakistan intelligence agency ISI in training and funding of these groups to materialize their interests in Kashmir and Afghanistan is not ambiguous. To counter Indian influence ISI trained these groups militarily to fight a proxy war in Kashmir. After the end of the Afghan war, ISI kept on supporting resistance groups against the Moscow puppet government and later supported the Taliban who were thought to be a strategic asset to Pakistan at that time. It is pertinent to note here that Pakistan was one of the three countries that recognized and supported the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The unregulated flow of money and arms from state and non-state actors to the militants then turned the groups into unflagging threats. They threatened internal security and became involved in attacks in length and breadth of Pakistan, from civilian targets, government offices and educational institutions to military headquarters and police stations. In the wake of the growing sectarian clashes during the 1990s, government launched an operation “Save Punjab” in 1994, which resulted in arrest of many extremists and many sectarian organizations were banned. However they kept on operating under different names. It was not until 9/11 that it was thought to regulate madrassas – and that too was in vain.

What could be done?

The ongoing military operation against militants and recent formation of a National Action Committee against terrorism is commendable but the effort is flawed and needs a holistic approach. Since 2004 intermittent military operations have been conducted on a limited scale in tribal areas against militants that have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and have displaced millions. Since June 2014 operations have been launched once again and recently in the aftermath of the Peshawar attack other coercive measures, i.e. capital punishment for accused militants in jails and the establishment of military courts to deal with terrorism cases, have gained momentum. The level of brutality in the Peshawar attack has justified these measures in the eye of the public in Pakistan. However, coercion and vengeance might seem appealing in the short run but the national counter terrorism plan is less likely to succeed in the long term without the incorporation of an ideological battle in terms of depoliticization, demilitarization and deradicalization of madrassas.

It is pertinent to address the root causes should we want to nip the evil from the bud. The link between madrassas and militancy is not spurious and recently there has been indictment that almost 10 percent of madrassas are breeding these militants. It is high time to deal with this gigantic monster. It is critically important that madrassas are depoliticized. Although the madrassas reform ordinances of 2001, 2003 (registration, curriculum reformation) and an agreement on madrassas regulation was reached in 2010, there has not been done much in practical terms. The failure of such regulation process was mainly because of political patronage and alliances of religious and political parties. To gain sympathy and support from religious factions, political parties have sidelined madrassa regulations. Maulana Abdul Aziz, a cleric of Jamia Hafsa, a female seminary adjacent to the Red Mosque, and Sami ul Haq, the chancellor of Dar ul uloom Haqqaniya and also called the father of Taliban, epitomize this. While the latter has been in the senate, the former has close links with prominent political figures. The Red Mosque and adjacent female madrassa, Jamya Hafsa, being pro Taliban, has been anti-government since the Pakistani involvement in the War on Terror. The students were involved in violent protests, kidnapping, and destruction of property. In 2007 Jamia Hafsa students set the Ministry of Environment building on fire, which resulted in the Red Mosque siege after negotiations failed, which led to 150 deaths along with the arrest of fifty militants and cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz. However, he was released in 2009 and all cases against him (murder, kidnapping, incitement) dismissed by 2013.

Unfortunately, all operations done against the militant organizations have been what you can call “selected mode”, countering some while leaving others alone because of their perceived strategic value.

The distinction of “good” and “bad” Taliban and other militants further aggravated the situation, as those who committed terrorist activities abroad or had close political or military linkage were immune to the government efforts to curb militancy because of their perceived strategic value. Some were permitted to roam about freely to proselytize their narrative e.g. Hafiz Saeed, Asmatullah Muawiya and Maulana Masood Azhar to name few, while others were captured or killed. All militants and terrorists regardless of where they have committed such activities must be tried.

The second much needed task is de radicalization of madrassas. The government should register and regulate madrassas by monitoring their funding sources and reforming curriculum. It is ludicrous and deplorable that recent demand of madrassas reforms is opposed by the Madrassa’s Board, Wafaq ul Madaris, as its general secretary contends that madrassa curriculum does not require any reforms. State must exercise its writ to bring its house in order in this regard.

Proselytization of a particular school of though that incite hate and militancy must be banned and such clerics must be punished. Since all registered madrassas follow curriculum set by Wafaq ul Madaris, it is important that government bring this governing body on board and set curriculum standards along with regular checks and balances. Curriculum of madrassas should also be made coherent to make sure there is no hate literature being taught and students must also be offered secular subjects. Moreover, as prominent religious scholar Javed Ahmed Ghamidi has prescribed, it is essential that student get a broad base secular education of 12 years before they chose to specialize in religion, so at least they have an ability to understand the process of critical and creative thinking. Madrassas established on sectarian basis should be banned and unregistered madrassas must be closed. Foreign funding of madrassas must be discouraged and there should be a limit on the amount that can be transferred.

The majority of madrassa students belong to poor social classes who find the seminaries enticing because they cannot afford secular education. The “horizontal deprivation” is thus considered an important cause of madrassa recruitment and it is evident from the fact that the concentration of such madrassas is in tribal areas and districts in southern Punjab, which are relatively impoverished and illiterate. It is a government responsibility to provide alternative education institutions and take other steps necessary to combat poverty, so as to provide alternatives to the religious seminaries.

The Pakistan government and military must learn from their past mistakes of breeding militants to fulfill their foreign policy objectives. It is crucial that the Pakistani political and military leadership stop backing such elements, which thrive on sectarianism and violence. Support of extremists and militants by fanning the flames of hate and sectarianism in the hope of a strategic value always lead to further problems and violence. Now the Pakistani army is waging a war against the extremist enemy at home that intelligence agencies helped create, but it cannot be won by military might alone. It is a government responsibility to start taking steps against the breeding grounds of militancy by ensuring much needed reforms in madrassas.

Sehar Mushtaq has a master of Philosophy in Political Science from Punjab University, Lahore Pakistan