Officials in Pakistan say Islamic organizations have agreed to put some 30,000 madrassas, or seminaries, under the supervision of the Ministry of Education as part of the government's efforts to curb violent extremism in the country.
Critics blame madrassas for the rising radicalization of Pakistan's youth and for serving as breeding grounds for transnational terrorist networks. The Pakistani military also has long been accused of covertly supporting some of these madrassas to train and send fighters to fuel conflicts in Afghanistan and a Muslim insurgency in the India-ruled portion of the disputed Kashmir region.
“The agreement has outlined rules and regulations for all madrassas in Pakistan to be registered with the education ministry and those who oppose the process will not be allowed to work,” Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood told the local Geo News channel.
Under the deal, the government will assist madrassa operators in opening their bank accounts and processing visas for foreign students seeking admission in Pakistani seminaries, the minister explained.
Officials say the measure will enable the government to audit finances being provided to the seminaries in the name of donations and charities to deter terrorism-related transactions, and monitor activities of foreign students attending the institutions.
The rare understanding comes days after the chief military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor, in an unusual move, unveiled government plans to bring much-sought reforms to madrassas to put them under state control.
Analysts say the military's lead to announce the plan was apparently aimed at deterring any possible backlash from Islamic organizations and at sending a strong message to these entities that the state is determined to press ahead with its plans.
The seminaries are largely ill-equipped. Children spend most of the time memorizing the Holy Quran, with almost no access to modern subjects. They can only get the job of a prayer leader at a mosque after finishing the madrassa education.
Supporters of the madrassa system say they are offering free education to around 2.5 million children of poverty-stricken families in Pakistan, where an estimated 25-million children are unable to receive any education.
Ghafoor says government scrutiny of all the seminaries has determined "less than 100” are suspected of involvement in promoting “violent extremism and terrorism.”
“An Islamic education will continue to be provided, but there will be no hate speech,” the army spokesman said while announcing the reform program about two weeks ago. “We want to end violent extremism in Pakistan and that will only happen when our children have the same education and opportunities,” he stressed.
Attempts by past Pakistani governments to mainstream the madrassa education system have faced strong resistance and threats of street agitation from religious groups for what they denounced as anti-Islam Western plot.
Mohammad Amir Rana of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) explained the reason for the military to take the lead and announce the madrassa reform program.
“This is quite a sensitive and critical issue and there is this thinking among the security institutions that no civilian government can handle it all alone and they need some harder perusal approach to implement the madrassa reforms,” Rana said.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, who took office last August, has vowed his government would not tolerate extremist or militant outfits operating on its territory.
Rana noted that there has been no retaliation, so far, from Islamic groups to madrassa reforms because the announcement has come from the military, the institution long suspected of creating and patronizing some of the seminaries.
“I think this may be one of the factors behind this new approach by the security institutions that they always have been blamed for supporting these kind of extremist elements in the country whatever the purpose was, whatever the complicated history we have. But now they have decided to deal with it by themselves,” Rana noted.
A senior Pakistani official told VOA that Islamic leaders and clerics from all schools of thought will be barred from delivering sermons or speeches in their respective seminaries that fuel sectarianism among various Sunni sects and the rival minority Shi’ite Muslim community. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media on the subject.
He noted the government has allocated an initial amount of $3.8 million (2.7 billion rupees) for the reform program. The process of hiring 100,000 new teachers to teach contemporary subjects at madrassas has started. Regional government officials will be appointed to support and coordinate with madrassa operators in mainstreaming the schools.
“If any madrassa are found involved in activities beyond their stated mandate the responsibility will rest with the religious leader running them,” the official emphasized.
Pakistani authorities in recent weeks have also taken control of hundreds of hospitals, seminaries and other facilities linked to banned organizations, including those designated as global terrorists by the United Nations.
Anti-India Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) militant groups were also among them. Indian officials blamed JeM for orchestrating a deadly suicide car bombing in February that killed 40 paramilitary forces in India-ruled portion of the disputed Kashmir region.
The move comes at a time of increased pressure on the country to act against Islamist groups that continue to operate religious seminaries and other facilities despite being designated as global terrorists by the United Nations.
It is widely believed that Pakistan’s steps against Islamist groups and entities stem from pressure the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is putting on Islamabad to take effective steps against money laundering and terrorism financing.
The FATF identifies jurisdictions with weak measure to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. Countries with inadequate controls for curbing money laundering and terrorism financing appear on the watchdog's "grey list." The group's "blacklist" is reserved for countries that fail to meet international standards in stopping financial crimes.
The watchdog is due to meet next month to review Pakistani measures before a critical meeting in September where a final decision will be taken to either remove the country from FATF's grey list or to place it in its blacklist. In the event of being blacklisted, analysts say, Pakistan’s economic woes will worsen because international financial dealings and trade will face restrictions.