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Pakistan's Prime Minister Tries To Reform Politically Powerful Madrassas


In Pakistan, Islamic seminaries, better known as madrassas, are widely seen as places where students are indoctrinated with extreme interpretations of Islam. Well, now Pakistan's prime minister wants to change them. Here's NPR's Diaa Hadid.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting in Arabic).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Boys sway as they chant the Quran in a shiny madrassa in the village of Mir Muhammad.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Chanting in Arabic).

HADID: They fall silent, and a star student chants alone.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Chanting in Arabic).

HADID: Girls study in a separate building. It's crumbling and dirty. There's about 32,000 madrassas across Pakistan, attended by more than 2 1/2 million students. Here, they're expected to memorize the Quran and master Islamic law and not much else.

Most madrassas fall outside of government control. And for decades, there's been concern that they're producing unskilled graduates steeped in intolerant versions of Islam. Many fear they've become recruiting grounds for extremists. But Muhammad Saleem Asif, the madrassa's principal, says Pakistan needs Islamic seminaries.

MUHAMMAD SALEEM ASIF: (Through interpreter) The seminaries are so important. They deal with the man's spiritual issues. They bless the communities around them.

HADID: Others worry about their influence in those communities. Abida Akram is the headmistress of a girls public high school. She says many of the young women in the village now wear long robes and face veils. It's a style of dress imported from Saudi Arabia. Private donors there fund many of these seminaries and promote Saudi Arabia's harsh interpretation of Islam, called Wahhabism.

ABIDA AKRAM: (Through interpreter) This is a matter of concern for our entire society. I try to keep my students and my kids away from the madrassas. They contaminate the students' minds. And if they remain unchecked, it will lead to disaster.

HADID: To Abida Akram's point, madrassa students angrily lashed out against the supreme court in October after the court acquitted a woman accused of insulting Islam. They led chants calling for the woman to be hanged and decapitated.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Urdu).

HADID: Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, who took power just months ago, initially vowed change.



HADID: Khan has called for madrassas to add basic subjects to their curriculum, like science and English. His party wants the madrassas to disclose their funding sources. All this implies some government control. But he won't be the first to try and change the politically powerful madrassas.

Decades of governments have tried and failed. A madrassa leader say they'll push back against Khan as well. Shaikh Tanveer Alavi is a senior teacher at Jamia Muhammadia. It's a madrassa in the Pakistani capital.

SHAIKH TANVEER ALAVI: (Through interpreter) There's lack of trust between madrassas and the government, so the seminaries oppose reforms. They think the government is trying to roll back or ruin this system.

HADID: Some madrassas, including Alavi's, already offer some non-religious subjects, like math.


HADID: And there's already signs that the prime minister might be caving. Months after he called for change, one of his senior allies promised madrassa leaders they'd be left alone. And many experts say the government is missing the point.

MOSHARRAF ZAIDI: The public education system vastly, vastly underserves Pakistani kids. There are 22 million kids out of school.

HADID: Mosharraf Zaidi is an analyst and education advocate. He says improve the public schools, and fewer parents will send their kids to madrassas. Headmistress Akram agrees. She shows us around her school.

There's 40 girls crammed into a class. They're short of teachers, and she wants the government to supply more. But here, she says, students will get an education, not indoctrination. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Mir Muhammad.

(SOUNDBITE OF .SINH'S "BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.