Pakistani Madrassas - Perception and Reality
For many of us the Karachi Kids controversy has moved into the oblivion. A recent report by the World Bank on the enrollment data in Pakistan’s religious schools seems to dispel the misperceptions regarding madrassa education highlighted in the Karachi Kids documentary. For those who missed out on the Karachi Kids controversy here’s a background. The Karachi Kids was a documentary film by Imran Raza which revealed how two American boys were held captive in a Pakistani madrassa previously attended by Osama Bin Laden. The narration of how the two boys had developed extremist views under the influence of the madrassa curriculum had outraged many Americans. Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) intervened, even requesting President Mushrraf to ensure the return of the boys to the U.S. Later it turned out that Jamia Binoria, the madrassa where the boys were allegedly held captive, was one of the most moderate madrassas across the globe and bin Laden had never visited it. The siblings returned to their Atlanta home after completing their Quranic education and emphasized that they had never been held at Jamia Binoria against their will. Filmmaker Raza apologized for the mistake caused due to certain discrepancies in the background research for the film.
Neither do all madrassas propagate extremist ideology nor is the education system in Pakistan hijacked by the madrassa system. A recent study by the World Bank establishes this fact on the basis of certain statistical data. The report is co-authored by Tahir Andrabi (Pomona College), Jishnu Das (The World Bank), Asim Ijaz Khwaja (Harvard University) and Tristan Zajonc (Harvard University). Here is what the report offers.
1. Popular knowledge about madrassas is gained through articles in mainstream American and international newspapers; reports and articles by American and international scholars affiliated with international think tanks, institutes, and the government (including the 9-11 Commission Report); and studies by Pakistani scholars working in Pakistan and abroad. The sources for all these reports are either newspaper accounts of police estimates or interviews with policymakers. According to the authors there is not a single article that tries to validate these numbers using established data sources.
2. Madrassas account for less than 1 percent of all enrollments in Pakistan and there is no evidence of a dramatic increase in recent years. Since 2001 total enrollment in madrassas has remained constant in some districts and increased in others.
3. The popularly cited enrollment numbers for the madrassas include students who attend public schools during day time but also participate in hourly lectures on the Quran during the evenings. Categorizing such students as receiving madrassa education distorts the empirical facts.
4. Madrassa enrollment declined from 1940 to 1980 but increased during the religion-based resistance to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets in 1979. The largest jump in madrassa enrollment is for the cohort aged 10 in the period 1989-93—coinciding with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Taliban. For any serious observer of world politics the U.S. involvement in encouraging madrassa education to train an army of anti-Soviet soldiers is common knowledge.
5. Widely promoted theories of madrassa enrollment based on household-level attributes such as income or religiosity and village-level characteristics, such as alternative schooling options, simply do not explain the substantial variation within households. Among the surveyed households, less than 25 percent send all their children to madrassas; in contrast, 50 percent send their children to both madrassas and public schools and another 27 percent use the private school option. This “stylized fact” requires a theory of variation between children rather than households to explain such enrollment.
6. Madrassas are most popular in the Pashtun belt with the top ten districts in terms of the fraction of enrolled children in madrassas all bordering Afghanistan (where they still account for less than 2 percent of all school-aged children).
7. At an aggregate level there is little difference between poor and rich households in the choice of religious schooling. However, this masks an important difference between two different types of settlements. In settlements where other schooling options exist, less than 1 percent of all enrolled children go to madrassas and this fraction is the same for all income groups. In settlements where there are no other schooling options, the fraction of children going to madrassas increases and is higher among the poor compared to the rich (although it stays below 4 percent for all income groups).
8. Madrassas vary in their character and the education that they impart, ranging from neighborhood evening religious education schools to those incorporating a more extreme radical militant view.
The extremist education in some of the Madrassas remains a matter of grave concern but such evidence cannot be used to defame the entire madrassa system. Reports such as these hardly find credible space in the mainstream media and misperceptions continue to linger. Hopefully corrective policies rather than re-enforcing politics finds favor with the Obama Administration.
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