A Turkish demand that Pakistan close 28 primary and secondary schools associated with controversial, self-exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen has put the government in Islamabad in a quandary as it attempts to get a grip on an education sector in which militant Islamists and jihadists figure prominently.
Turkish Ambassador to Pakistan S. Babur Girgin’s demand for the closure of the schools operated by PakTurk International Schools and Colleges was part of a global effort to dismantle the network of Mr. Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based head of Hizmet, one of the world’s largest and wealthiest Islamic movements with businesses, schools and universities in scores of countries.
PakTurk schools have an estimated 10,000 students and are viewed as some of Pakistan’s better educational institutions. PakTurk has denied being part of any political or religious movement but admits to sympathizing with Mr. Gulen’s philosophy.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed Mr. Gulen for this month’s failed military coup attempt and has demanded that the United States extradite the preacher to Turkey. The president has in the last week closed some 1,000 schools and 15 universities in Turkey that he says were associated with Hizmet, and has arrested or dismissed from public service some 60,000 people alleged to be followers of Mr. Gulen. Responding to Turkish demands, Azerbaijan earlier this week closed a university that allegedly was founded by Gulen supporters.
Compliance with the Turkish demand would complicate already feeble Pakistani government efforts to not only assemble an accurate inventory of institutions in the country’s education sector but also impose regulation. Senior government officials concede that they have no accurate overview of how many schools exist in Pakistan, particularly when it comes to Islamic seminaries or madrassas.
Estimates by government officials and non-governmental experts run the gamut, ranging from 25,000 to 88,000 madrassas or one to 50 percent of all educational institutions and one to 33 percent of all students in a country in which up to 50 percent of school-age children are not enrolled in an educational institution.
The one thing officials and experts do agree on is the fact that the majority of madrassas receive foreign funding, including substantial amounts from Saudi Arabia that often go to larger institutions. Funding from Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, a puritan interpretation of Islam, is part of a decades-old public diplomacy campaign, the largest in history, that is designed to propagate ultra-conservative versions of the faith.
“If there is one segment of the population which has complete freedom of expression in Pakistan, it is the Muslim religious theocracy – they can say whatever they like – there is no curtailment, there is no retribution and there is no blowback to them from the state. The rest of us pay the price,” warned author and policy advisor Najma Minhas.
Minhas’ view echoed by many in Western governments as well as a host of academics, pundits and journalists is countered by scholars critical of assertions that madrassas constitute breeding grounds for militancy. Critics emphasize the welfare and educational impact of a majority of madrassas in terms of the benefits of a boarding school accrued by poor families who see their food and housing costs diminished and would otherwise be unable to give their children any education.
The impact on Pakistani society of the pervasiveness of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism is nonetheless evident across the country.
A recent study conducted by the Pakhtunkhwa Cultural Foundation, a Peshawar-based group that aims to confront the erosion of culture, concluded that “the Wahabi school of thought gained influence in the society due to political developments and state patronage, and particularly in the wake of the war in Afghanistan. Ideologues of the Wahabi school consider artistic expression against Islam…declaring songs, films and anything artistic to be obscene… The sharp decline in socio-cultural life has created a vacuum that is being filled by religious missionaries,” the study said.
It documented in Peshawar the end of public concerts, the demise of scores of families of artists, the closure of almost 200 CD shops and dozens of cinemas and the professional death of actors and performers.
Notions of inertia if not complicity in government branches in which Saudi-backed worldviews have made significant inroads are fuelled by the fact that security forces seldom capture the killers of artists and cultural workers or bombers of shops and cinemas. On the contrary, those branches of government frequently adopt policies that contribute to an environment of increased intolerance. Victims and their families are left to their own devices and often reduced to abject poverty.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported earlier this year that Pakistani public school textbooks circulated to at least 41 million children contained derogatory references to religious minorities. The perception of minorities as threats was reinforced with the enhanced Islamization of text books in the decade from 1978 to 1988 in which General Zia ul-Haq ruled Pakistan.
“In public school classrooms, Hindu children are forced to read lessons about ‘Hindus’ conspiracies toward Muslims’, and Christian children are taught that ‘Christians learned tolerance and kind-heartedness from Muslims.’ This represents a public shaming of religious minority children that begins at a very young age, focusing on their religious and cultural identity and their communities’ past history. A review of the curriculum demonstrates that public school students are being taught that religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus, are nefarious, violent, and tyrannical by nature. There is a tragic irony in these accusations, because Christians and Hindus in Pakistan face daily persecution, are common victims of crime, and are frequent targets of deadly communal violence, vigilantism, and collective punishment,” USCIRF report concluded.
“By imposing the harsh, literal interpretation of religion exported and promoted by Saudi Arabia, we have turned Pakistan into a drab, monochromatic landscape where colour, laughter, dancing and music are frowned upon, if not entirely banned. And yet Islam in South Asia was once characterised by a life-enhancing Sufi tradition that is now under threat. More and more, we are following the example set by the Taliban,” added Pakistani writer Irfan Husain.
”We teach students the aqeedah (creed) of every sect and tell them as to how and where that aqeedah is wrong so that we can guide them to the right aqeedah,” said Umer bin Abdul Aziz of the Jaimatul Asar madrassa in Peshawar.
“People who claim that we brainwash children are American parts. Students are taught the path of virtue and jihad. They learn that humans are temporary guests in this world and that they have to contribute to their religion and next life. They learn Islamic principles among which jihad and the need to defend the interests of Islam and satisfy Allah,” added a teacher in a militant, Saudi-funded madrassa in Pakistan whose students largely hail from Afghanistan.
Based on textual analysis of madrassa texts, scholar Niaz Muhammad warned that “no one should claim that their statements about the madrassa curriculum have nothing to do with sectarianism or other forms of religious militancy.”
The dilemma for the Pakistani government is stark. Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim has warned that Turkey would be at war with any country that cooperates or aids the Gulen movement. Yet closing down schools that prepare their students for a modern society and economy is something Pakistan’s deeply troubled education sector can ill afford.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.