In the aftermath of the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, and the National Action Plan against terrorism that was put in place thereafter, focus seems to have turned on the individual: hate-spewing clerics needed to be arrested, for their venom was insulting to the memory of those who died on December 16, 2014 and counter-productive for any national resolve to fight off terror.
But few are asking the fundamental question, which is if the real issue is the individual or the institution that he represents? Maulana Abdul Aziz can be arrested and removed from Lal Masjid, for example, but would that translate into removing his spirit and footprints from Jamia Hafsa? Can the two even be separated? How entrenched is the individual in the politics and practice of his institution? Is there a linear relationship between madressas and militancy? Is reform of madressas simply a lofty, unattainable ideal?
Madressas in Pakistan have managed to historically construct a position of sanctity for themselves in society, many times aided and abetted by the state and government. This is partly due to a general confusion whether the madressa as an institution is generally harmless and benign or whether there is more to it. Today, madressas go beyond a single institute of learning: many madressas are now part of a network of institutions that are loosely connected with a mother organisation, and are sponsoring a particular ideology of a particular group.
2007: Dars-i-Nizami exams at Jamia Binoria, Karachi—Reuters file photo
In truth, madressas are one of the biggest unregulated sectors in Pakistan, with scholars estimating 16,000 to 20,000 registered madressas operating in the country. Official sources, meanwhile, recently disclosed a figure of 25,000 registered madressas, while it is also believed that were unregistered madressas taken into account, the total would be around 40,000. A couple of years ago, a senior Sindh Police officer confided that there was a monthly expansion of two to three madressas in the province. The trend continues.