In 1857, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan began a reform programme for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, firmly believing that they would not be able to progress in society without the acquisition of Western education and sciences. Nearly one-and-a-half century later, madressahs in Pakistan believe the same.
`Without modern education, Muslims can`t survive, argues Attiqur Rehman Chohan, spokesman for the Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) in Peshawar. `The Dawa System of Education has been established to impart religious and modern education simultaneously. Our institutions are being set up across the country.
Notwithstanding the ban apparently imposed on them by the government as part of the National Action Plan against terrorism, the JuD is running about 30 English-medium schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is believed that their schools network in Punjab is much larger. Perhaps the ban is only in name.
`Our organisation is introducing a curriculum that is currently taught at Atchison College, Lahore and at the University of Oxford. The programme will start in the first phase from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, and thereafter extended in other cities,` explains Chohan.
Thus far, the JuD has been training teachers who can instruct in the English language. Around 250 teachers in Islamabad have completed their training, but the JuD`s requirement is much larger. `We have planned to set up English-medium schools and colleges at divisional level.
Our network will then be extended to district and tehsil levels,` elaborates the spokesman.
In the past, religious organisations following different schools of thought focused on madressahs to produce their particular breed of cleric.
The trend has now shifted; the medium of instruction no longer needs to be a vernacular language or Arabic, while subjects taught are no longer restricted to theology. This process of establishing modern institutions, where students can be taught business, science and technology in the English language, has been underway since almost a decade.But this strategy is not born out of` the clerics` love l`or modern education; it is what they need to systematically propagate their ideology to a wider audience.
Most of these new English medium institutions are not restricted to schools either; well-off people affiliated with religious groups have set up vocational and technical colleges on the basis of sect. The number of English medium schools in the country has been increasing simply because religious groups have started their entry into modern education systems. The problem arises, however, when sectarian teachings become part of the curriculum in the guise of religious teachings.
Some sectarian groups also organise special coaching classes and tuition centres to prepare candidates to appear in competitive exams such as Central Superior Service (CSS) and provincial management service. `A religious group regularly arranges classes in Lahore for candidates who intend to take the CSS exams, so as to induct officersfrom their sect in the bureaucracy,` explains a source.
Given the number of sects and sectarian differences at play in Pakistan, almost all major players now run a growing network of modern educational institutions and madressahs in tandem.
The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), which represents the Deobandi school of thought and has the largest network of madressahs in the country, runs private schools and colleges through the Sufa School System. `Retired teachers and professors ideologically infused by the JUI-F have been running this system in different areas, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,` claims the party`s provincial information secretary, Maulana Abdul Jalil Jan.
The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) too runs a separate body in Mansoora, Lahore, named Dar-i-Argam. This organisation manages the party`s affiliated chain of English-medium schools across the country. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone, the party has more than 150 private schools. Another two JT-affiliated syndicates, Hira and Iqra, have also their separate network of schools and colleges.
The Barelvi school of thought is not to be left behind either: they have a network of private schools that run under the supervision of four different bodies, AIMS Education System (AES), Mustafvi Model Schools, Muslim Hands and Minhajul Quran. These schools run in both the rural and the urban sectors.
Education experts and social commentators call the flourishing of parallel education systems a dangerous trend. The argument is that in the absence of a government-run uniform system of education, private educational institutions run by different schools of thought will systematically polarise Pakistani society, which is already reeling from the effects of sectarianism.
`Radical religious groups have already intruded into parliament and culture. Now they have planned to acquire managerial capabilities as well as the use of modern technology through their own English medium schools and higher education institutions,` says Professor Khadim Hussain, guest lecturer at the Linguistics Department, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. `They now want to accommodatetheir people in civil services, defence and other fields.
Prof Hussain explains that till a few years ago, the share of such groups in private education sector was about 25 per cent but now it has risen to more than 40pc. If the trend continues, he says, there will be an increase in `social isolation`.
The issue at heart for academics and educationists is not the increase in school buildings, but what is being taught in these buildings. One analyst describes the intervention of religious groups in education systems as something meant to indoctrinate children instead of educating them.
Speaking in tongues by Zulfiqar Ali dawn.com