Pakistan's powerful army chief of staff has waded into the sensitive issue of madrassas, questioning how well the religious schools are preparing students in the age of technology.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa shared his critique of madrassas in a seminar about youth development in Quetta, which the United States and Afghanistan think is home to the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban movement began among students attending Pakistani religious schools.
"So what will they [madrassa students] become? Will they become maulvis [clerics] or will they become terrorists?" Bajwa asked.
Madrassas focus heavily on Islamic theocracy and religious theology, eschewing more traditional classes in math, science and social studies. Historically, graduating madrassa students are eligible for one job: imam of a mosque.
Students in madrassas
Bajwa said he was told that 2.5 million students were studying in madrassas in Pakistan and that it's impossible to build enough mosques to employ them. The Board of Madrassas said Pakistan has about 35,337 registered madrassas.
Madrassas have resisted calls for reforms, have failed to evolve in line with contemporary educational needs and concepts, and are accused of stifling critical and analytical skills, so their students suffer when trying to compete for jobs in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
"We need to look [at] and revisit the concept of madrassas," Bajwa said. "Most of them are just teaching theology. So what are their [students'] chances? What is their future in this country? We need to give them a worldly education."
Qibla Ayaz, head of the Council of Islamic Ideology, Pakistan's watchdog on religious issues, told VOA Deewa that the debate on reforms should also be extended to the country's overall education system.
"If you look at the students from the nonreligious schools, the majority are unemployed," Ayaz said. "Our education doesn't provide skills, and as a result, we see that in the recent terrorist incidents, students from Karachi University, Lahore University of Management Sciences and other prestigious institutes are involved in terrorism."
Debate on madrassa reforms isn't new but has gained urgency amid a record level of violence, most of which is blamed on madrassa students and leaders, who critics claim promote violence, intolerance and anti-Western bias.
Educational reforms backed
The U.S. sees educational reforms in Pakistan as a matter of national security. The 9/11 Commission's report called for "efforts to expand and improve the secular education system in Pakistan, and to develop and utilize a moderate curriculum for private religious schools in Pakistan."
In 2002, then-President Pervez Musharraf promised to register all madrassas and undertook a project to regulate the curriculum so all of them would adopt a government-approved, standardized course of study by the end of the year. A government body would be established with authority to grant madrassa diplomas.
The initiative failed as religious scholars did not trust Musharraf and accused him of pursuing a foreign agenda.
The number of madrassas in Pakistan has increased more than tenfold since 1947, in apparent correspondence with the deterioration of the public education system.
"In Pakistan, textbooks have been criticized for normalizing militarism and war and including biases and historical errors and distortions," UNESCO said in its latest report on education in Pakistan. "Prominent Pakistanis, other than military heroes and nationalist movement leaders, are often excluded."
The International Crisis Group added: "There appears to be few differences between public school and madrassa syllabi with regard to the levels of intolerance that are assuming dangerous proportions."
Bajwa said poor education, particularly in madrassas, was holding back the nation of 207 million people.
"I am not against madrassas, but we have lost the essence of madrassas," the general said.