Pakistan is expected to take a flexible approach towards Saturday’s deadline for the registration of Islamic religious schools. About a third of the 12,000 madrassahs has so far failed to comply with government’s efforts to tighten regulation of their activities.
The registration drive is widely seen as a response to western concerns over the alleged role of some madrassahs in providing a breeding ground for Islamic militants.
The registration forces the schools to periodically submit information on their sources of funding as well as respect an official ban on recruiting foreign students. Government officials will also carry out regular inspections to ensure there is no training of students in the use of weapons.
The ban on recruiting foreign students was imposed earlier this year, following revelations that at least one of the four suicide bombers involved in the July underground attacks in London visited a madrassah last year.
Those revelations prompt-ed immediate calls from UK officials for tighter regulation of the schools.
The madrassahs’ links to militancy came to light in the 1980s when the schools were used to train militants preparing to join the ‘jihad’ [holy war] – a reference at the time to armed Islamic insurgencies in various locations ranging from Afghanistan to Indian-administered Kashmir.
According to western diplomats, many were funded by an equally diverse set of patrons from affluent Arabs keen to sponsor Islamic causes, to the CIA, which wanted to bolster resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Pakistani leaders including General Pervez Musharraf, the country’s military ruler, claim that the recent allegations of links between madrassahs and militancy have been exaggerated.
“We have kept a close eye on this network. The very fact that there haven’t been any further claims of links between madrassahs and any militancy proves that the situation is well under control,” said Aftab Sherpao, Pakistan’s interior minister.
“So far, the indications are that we have managed to have 60-65 per cent of madrassahs register with the government,” he said, adding that the final figure would be compiled in coming weeks. The result of the registration exercise will be closely watched by western governments, notably the UK, and the US, which considers Gen Musharraf a key ally in the war on terror.
“The ‘madrassah’ issue remains on everybody’s radar screens. The July bombings jolted people into realising how much these schools are a problem,” said a western ambassador in Islamabad.