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Madrassa graduates and labour market mismatches -by Murtaza Haider

The proliferation of madrassa education in Pakistan has contributed to labour market mismatches. According to the Pakistan government’s own statistics in 2008 alone twice as many students were enrolled in the 12,500 madrassas than in the 124-odd universities.

Given the curriculum taught in madrassas, most graduates are ill-equipped for gainful employment in a knowledge-based economy. Such graduates, frustrated by their limited or non-existent employment prospects, have often gravitated towards militancy and extremism.

Madrassas in Pakistan flourished under late General Ziaul Haq who used Islamisation of the state and the society to prolong his rule. Whereas the population increased by 29 per cent during 1972 and 1981, the number of graduates from religious schools in Pakistan increased by 195 per cent during the same period. This resulted in an oversupply of graduates from religious schools who had limited employment prospects.

The military and civil governments that followed the Zia regime also did little to address the dramatic increase in the number of madrassas and the students enrolled in such institutions. The number of madrassas jumped from 2,800 in 1988 to 9,900 in 2002. The Deobandi madrassas saw the largest increase during that period reaching a total of 7,000 institutions. In fact, the increase in the number of Deobandi madrassas was higher than the number of all other madrassas combined.

Professor Jamal Malik, who holds the Islamic Studies chair at Erfurt University in Germany, was amongst the first to undertake a systematic study of “colonialisation of Islam” where he focussed on how religious education was transformed under late General Zia. In 1987, Professor Malik highlighted the labour market mismatch for the thousands of madrassa graduates whose religious training was out-of-step with the skills needed to be employed in the civilian workforce.

The madrassa graduates were initially disadvantaged in the competitive labour markets because their asnaad (diplomas) were not recognised by those outside the religious establishment. The fix was however provided by the Zia regime in 1982 when the University Grants Commission decreed that madrassa diplomas were equivalent to an MA in Arabic or Islamic Studies.

Despite the equivalency for academic credentials, the madrassa graduates did not experience any meaningful increase in their employability in the urban employment markets where the services sector had emerged as the major provider of employment. The Zia regime tried to generate employment for the unemployed religious graduates by introducing Arabic and other religious subjects in the school curricula. However, the supply of religious graduates far exceeded the demand resulting in a large number of disgruntled and frustrated madrassa graduates whose numbers continued to swell in the decades following the Zia regime.

According to Professor Malik, the armed forces tried to offer reprieve to the burgeoning number of unemployed madrassa graduates. Under General Zia, the army took out advertisements in madrassa publications, such as Al-Haq (Akora Khattak), encouraging graduates to join the forces as soldiers or in other capacities.

Professor Malik’s study exposed the systematic spatial and socio-economic trends instrumental in the backgrounds of madrassa students. Most graduates of the Deobandi madrassas came from rural and economically deprived parts of Balochistan and (formally) NWFP. On the other hand, most students in Barelvi madrassas were of middle or lower middle class background belonging to semi-urban parts of Punjab. And whereas the growth of the Deobandi madrassas outpaced the rest, the madrassas operated by Barelvis, Ahle-Hadiths, and Jamat-i-Islami also experienced resurgence under the Zia regime.

The Deobandi madrassas, which grew at a faster rate in the Pashtun areas, were also more radical and closely linked with the war against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. The Deobandi madrassas have continued to become even more radicalised over the years. In a recent study of religious institutions in AhmedpurSharqi (East), S. H. Ali found that 80 per cent of the 166 Deobandi madrassas were involved in sectarian activities compared to only 25 per cent of the 166 Barelvi madrassas.* At the same time, seven out of 10 Shia madrassas were found to be involved in sectarian activities.

Deobandis were not the only ones who were mobilised to serve in militias fighting the Soviet Army and its allies in Afghanistan. Barelvis and others, including Shias, were also coopted in the great game. The Lebanon-based Hezbollah was mobilised to convince Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan to join Deobandis and others in the fight against the Soviets. In early nineties, the then Hezbollah Chief, Sheikh Abbas Al-Musawi, showed up in Pakistan where he met with not just the madrassa students, but also addressed students enrolled in universities in Peshawar.

The battle-hardened graduates of madrassas, who had served in Afghanistan, returned initially to a hero’s welcome during mid- to late-80s. Given their persistent lack of employable skills required in the services sector and despite their marshal prowess earned in Afghanistan, the madrassa graduates continued to face the same dim employment prospects.

Professor Jamal Malik sensed the hazards latent in an oversupply of religious youth who were armed and laureates of guerrilla warfare. As early as in 1987, he ominously warned that the large number of madrassa graduates in the future would result in “a very high probability that the Government will be faced with an enormous problem in the next five to ten years to come.”

By mid-90s, as per Professor Malik’ stark warnings, the Taliban (lead by the graduates of mostly Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan) and their allies had marched out of Pakistan in all different directions. Years later, the same madrassa graduates returned to Pakistan to start an armed struggle against the State, which has resulted in the violent death of over 37,000 Pakistanis and at the same time has destabilised the state and the society.

While Professor Malik had warned against the threats posed by an army of unemployed madrassa graduates much before others, there was however no shortage of warnings by other notables against creating such militias. In October 1996, when the Taliban were busy taking control of Afghanistan in a violent struggle against other Afghans, Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, warned the world about the folly of jumping in bed with the Taliban. He wrote: “Whatever its political future, the Taleban is likely to swell the ranks of Afghan war alumni waging international terrorism.”

Later in May 1999, Ahmed Shah Masood also warned Pakistan and the rest of what to expect from the Taliban once they were done with Afghanistan. Masood knew well of the Taliban’s motives who wanted to “impose their version of Islam in Afghanistan, and then export it elsewhere.” He was prophetic in his assessment of the inherent risks of a complete takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, which he shared with the Sydney Morning Herald: “If we don’t resist they will go on to Uzbekistan or Pakistan. They can’t keep still.”

The challenge remains as to how one can integrate madrassa graduates in the workforce, thus preventing them from joining extremist organisations. The madrassa reforms, which advocate introducing English, math and science in the madrassa curricula, have largely been ineffective and ill-conceived. Such reforms fail to appreciate the self-selection bias inherent in madrassa enrolments. Those who are more likely to fail in English, math and science subjects end up in madrassas. Revising the curriculum by adding these subjects will lead to higher failure rates, which would further add to frustration of madrassa students.

Instead of teaching English or math, I would recommend vocational training for all madrassa students. Despite the economic hardship, Pakistan boasts a growing, albeit struggling at times, middle class that sustains the demand for new homes, cars, and motorcycles. Pakistan needs electricians, plumbers, motor mechanics and other similar craftsmen who can demand a decent wage in the current market place. Furthermore, with some technical experience gained in Pakistan, the madrassa graduates can search for similar work in the Middle East where they can earn higher wages for their skills, which will also include some fluency in Arabic.

Without any vocational training for madrassa graduates we will only compound our security concerns in Pakistan.

Source: S. H. Ali. Pakistani Madressahs and rural underdevelopment in Madressahs in South Asia: teaching terror? Edited by Jamal Malik. Routledge 2008.pp. 94.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at


Source: DAWN

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Junaid Qaiser


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  • Excellent piece. Some highlights:

    “Whereas the population increased by 29 per cent during 1972 and 1981, the number of graduates from religious schools in Pakistan increased by 195 per cent during the same period.”

    “The madrassa reforms, which advocate introducing English, math & science in the madrassa curricula, have largely been ineffective”

    “The Lebanon-based Hezbollah was mobilized to convince Shias in Afghanistan& Pakistan to join Deobandis in the fight against the Soviets”

    “80% of the 166 Deobandi madrassas involved in sectarian activities compared to only 25 per cent of the 166 Barelvi madrassas”

    “Most graduates of the Deobandi madrassas came from rural and economically deprived parts of Balochistan and (formerly) NWFP”

    “Under General Zia, the army took out advertisements in madrassa publications encouraging graduates 2 join the forces as soldiers”

    “In 1982 the University Grants Commission decreed that madrassa diplomas were equivalent to an MA in Arabic or Islamic Studies.”

    “The Deobandi madrassas saw the largest increase during that period reaching a total of 7,000 institutions.”

    “The number of madrassas jumped from 2,800 in 1988 to 9,900 in 2002.”

    “In 2008 alone twice as many students were enrolled in the 12,500 madrassas than in the 124-odd universities.”


  • 2008: Extremist recruitment on the rise in south Punjab madrassahs

    2011-05-21 21:43:26

    178082 11/13/2008 10:30 08LAHORE302 Consulate Lahore SECRET//NOFORN “ACTION SCA-00




    Derived from: DSCG 05-1, B,D

    1. (S/NF) Summary: During recent trips to southern Punjab, Principal Officer was repeatedly told that a sophisticated jihadi recruitment network had been developed in the Multan, Bahawalpur, and Dera Ghazi Khan Divisions. The network reportedly exploited worsening poverty in these areas of the province to recruit children into the divisions’ growing Deobandi and Ahl-eHadith madrassa network from which they were indoctrinated into jihadi philosophy, deployed to regional training/indoctrination centers, and ultimately sent to terrorist training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Locals believed that charitable activities being carried out by Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith organizations, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Al-Khidmat Foundation, and Jaish-e-Mohammad were further strengthening reliance on extremist groups and minimizing the importance of traditionally moderate Sufi religious leaders in these communities. Government and non-governmental sources claimed that financial support estimated at nearly 100 million USD annually was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in the region from “”missionary”” and “”Islamic charitable”” organizations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ostensibly with the direct support of those governments. Locals repeatedly requested USG support for socio-economic development and the promotion of moderate religious leaders in the region as a direct counter to the growing extremist threat. End Summary.

    2. (S/NF) During a recent visit to the southern Punjabi cities of Multan and Bahawalpur, Principal Officer’s discussions with religious, political, and civil society leaders were dominated by discussions of the perceived growing extremist threat in Seraiki and Baloch areas in southern and western Punjab. Interlocutors repeatedly stressed that recruitment activities by extremist religious organizations, particularly among young men between the ages of 8 and 15, had increased dramatically over the last year. Locals blamed the trend on a strengthening network of Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith mosques and madrassas, which they claimed had grown exponentially since late 2005. Such growth was repeatedly attributed to an influx of “”Islamic charity”” that originally reached Pakistani pseudo-religious organizations, such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Al-Khidmat foundation, as relief for earthquake victims in Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province. Locals believe that a portion of these funds was siphoned to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in southern and western Punjab in order to expand these sects’ presence in a traditionally hostile, but potentially fruitful, recruiting ground. The initial success of establishing madrassas and mosques in these areas led to subsequent annual “”donations”” to these same clerics, originating in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The value of such donations was uncertain, although most interlocutors believed that it was in the region of $100 million annually.

    3. (S/NF) According to local interlocutors, current recruitment activities generally exploit families with multiple children, particularly those facing severe financial difficulties in light of inflation, poor crop yields, and growing unemployment in both urban and rural areas in the southern and western Punjab. Oftentimes, these families are identified and initially approached/assisted by ostensibly “”charitable”” organizations including Jamaat-ud-Dawa (a front for designated foreign terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Tayyaba), the Al-Khidmat Foundation (linked to religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami), or Jaish-e-Mohammad (a charitable front for the designated foreign terrorist organization of the same name).

    4. (S/NF) The local Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith maulana will generally be introduced to the family through these organizations. He will work to convince the parents that their poverty is a direct result of their family’s deviation from “”the true path of Islam”” through “”idolatrous”” worship at local Sufi shrines and/or with local Sufi Peers. The maulana suggests that the quickest way to return to “”favor”” would be to devote the lives of one or two of their sons to Islam. The maulana will offer to educate these children at his madrassa and to find them employment in the service of Islam. The concept of “”martyrdom”” is often discussed and the family is promised that if their sons are “”martyred”” both the sons and the family will attain “”salvation”” and the family will obtain God’s favor in this life, as well. An immediate cash payment is finally made to the parents to compensate the family for its “”sacrifice”” to Islam. Local sources claim that the current average rate is approximately Rps. 500,000 (approximately USD 6500) per son. A small number of Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in Dera Ghazi Khan district are reportedly recruiting daughters as well.

    5. (S/NF) The path following recruitment depends upon the age of the child involved. Younger children (between 8 and 12) seem to be favored. These children are sent to a comparatively small, extremist Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith madrassa in southern or western Punjab generally several hours from their family home. Locals were uncertain as to the exact number of madrassas used for this initial indoctrination purpose, although they believed that with the recent expansion, they could number up to 200. These madrassas are generally in isolated areas and are kept small enough (under 100 students) so as not to draw significant attention. At these madrassas, children are denied contact with the outside world and taught sectarian extremism, hatred for non-Muslims, and anti-Western/anti-Pakistan government philosophy. Contact between students and families is forbidden, although the recruiting maulana periodically visits the families with reports full of praise for their sons’ progress. “”Graduates”” from these madrassas are either (1) employed as Deobandi/Ahl-e-Hadith clerics or madrassa teachers or (2) sent on to local indoctrination camps for jihad. Teachers at the madrassa appear to make the decision based on their read of the child’s willingness to engage in violence and acceptance of jihadi culture versus his utility as an effective proponent of Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith ideology/recruiter.

    6. (S/NF) Children recruited at an older age and “”graduates”” chosen for jihad proceed to more sophisticated indoctrination camps focused on the need for violence and terrorism against the Pakistan government and the West. Locals identified three centers reportedly used for this purpose. The most prominent of these is a large complex that ostensibly has been built at Khitarjee (sp?). Locals placed this site in Bahawalpur District on the Sutlej River north of the village of Ahmedpur East at the border of the districts of Multan, Bahawalpur, and Lodhran. The second complex is a newly built “”madrassa”” on the outskirts of Bahawalpur city headed by a devotee of Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Maulana Masood Azhar identified only as Maulana Al-Hajii (NFI). The third complex is an Ahl-e-Hadith site on the outskirts of Dera Ghazi Khan city about which very limited information was available. Locals asserted that these sites were primarily used for indoctrination and very limited military/terrorist tactic training. They claimed that following several months of indoctrination at these centers youth were generally sent on to more established training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and then on to jihad either in FATA, NWFP, or as suicide bombers in settled areas. Many worried that these youth would eventually return to try and impose their extremist version of Islam in the southern and western Punjab and/or to carry out operations in these areas.

    7. (S/NF) Interlocutors repeatedly chastised the government for its failure to act decisively against indoctrination centers, extremist madrassas, or known prominent leaders such as Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Masood Azhar. One leading Sufi scholar and a Member of the Provincial Assembly informed Principal Officer that he had personally provided large amounts of information on the location of these centers, madrassas, and personalities to provincial and national leaders, as well as the local police. He was repeatedly told that “”plans”” to deal with the threat were being “”evolved”” but that direct confrontation was considered “”too dangerous.”” The Bahawalpur District Nazim told Principal Officer that he had repeatedly highlighted the growing threat to the provincial and federal governments but had received no support in dealing with it. He blamed politics, stating that unless he was willing to switch parties — he is currently with the Pakistan Muslim League — neither the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz provincial nor the Pakistan Peoples Party federal governments would take his requests seriously. The brother of the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs, and a noted Brailvi/Sufi scholar in his own right, Allama Qasmi blamed government intransigence on a culture that rewarded political deals with religious extremists. He stressed that even if political will could be found, the bureaucracy in the Religious Affairs, Education, and Defense Ministries remained dominated by Zia-ul-Haq appointees who favored the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith religious philosophies. This bureaucracy, Qasmi claimed, had repeatedly blocked his brother’s efforts to push policy in a different direction.

    8. (S/NF) Interlocutors repeatedly requested USG assistance for the southern and western Punjab, believing that an influx of western funds could counter the influence of Deobandi/Ahl-e-Hadith clerics. Principal Officer was repeatedly reminded that these religious philosophies were alien to the southern and western Punjab — which is the spiritual heartland of South Asia’s Sufi communities. Their increasing prominence was directly attributed to poverty and external funding. Locals believed that socio-economic development programs, particularly in education, agriculture, and employment generation, would have a direct, long-term impact in minimizing receptivity to extremist movements. Similarly, they pressed for immediate relief efforts — particularly food distribution and income support — to address communities’ immediate needs. Several interlocutors also encouraged direct USG support to Brailvi/Sufi religious institutions, arguing that these represented the logical antithesis to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith philosophy and that if adequately funded, they could stem the tide of converts away from their moderate beliefs.


    9. (S/NF) A jihadi recruiting network relying on Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith religious, charitable, and educational institutions is increasing its work in impoverished districts of southern and western Punjab. Local economic conditions coupled with foreign financing appear to be transforming a traditionally moderate area of the country into a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist organizations. The provincial and federal governments, while fully aware of the problem, appear to fear direct confrontation with these extremist groups. Local governments lack the resources and federal/provincial support to deal with these organizations on their own. The moderate Brailvi/Sufi community is internally divided into followers of competing spiritual leaders and lacks the financial resources to act as an effective counterweight to well-funded and well-organized extremists.

    10. (S/NF) Post believes that this growing recruitment network poses a direct threat to USG counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts in Pakistan. Intervention at this stage in the southern and western Punjab could still be useful to counter the prevailing trends favoring extremist organizations. USAID development resources in agriculture, economic growth, education, and infrastructure development are useful and necessary and will address some of the immediate needs. In post’s view short-term, quick impact programs are required which focus on: (1) immediate relief in the form of food aid and microcredit, (2) cash for work and community-based, quick-impact infrastructure development programs focusing on irrigation systems, schools, and other critical infrastructure, and (3) strategic communication programs designed to educate on the dangers of the terrorist recruiting networks and to support counter-terrorist, counter-extremist messages. HUNT

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