Pakistan Needs Modern Secular Education, Not Madrassas

By B. R. Gowani

The female literacy rate in Pakistan is a mere 36% compared to 63% for men. This literacy rate denotes only reading capability — that is, it doesn’t show how intelligent or smart the person is and is not a measure of the critical thinking prowess. The country does not believe in women’s rights or in human rights for its citizens — except for the elite class.

The beautiful Swat Valley is now the base of Maulana Fazalullah. He is known as “Mullah Radio” for his operation of an illegal FM radio station. Many schools have been blown up here – the majority of them were Girls’ schools.

The Militants’ Menace

Extremism has seeped into the veins of Pakistan (and many other Muslim countries) that are being destroyed by this poison. And when it infiltrates the system of education, you don’t need a panel of pundits to forecast the country’s doom.

In its fanatic zeal to fight communism, the United States played an important role in weakening the secular elements in the Muslim countries, hence strengthening the militant forces there. The influence and violence of these zealots is disturbingly visible in Pakistan and most other Muslim countries and in countries with sizeable Muslim populations. Learning institutions are meant to be centers which facilitate the creation and free flow of secular ideas. But that is not the case here. The social science fields are also not flourishing as freely as they should, in order to meet the demands of free rational enquiries, because of the fear and interference of the religious elements.

Although a truly free environment has never existed in Pakistan; recently, however, the environment has become unbearably suffocating. Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azam University, ranked as the second best university among the Muslim countries, has three mosques and the fourth one is being planned. However, it has no book store! It is a sad commentary on the state of education there, when more importance is given to mosques — which should have no place whatsoever in learning centers — than a book store, which is so critical to a university.

The educational curriculum of subjects related to science and technology between the Muslim countries and, not only the western countries, but even India, Brazil, and China, is disappointing.

Eminent physics Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy points out that it has not always been like this:

“Islam’s magnificent Golden Age in the 9th–13th centuries brought about major advances in mathematics, science, and medicine. The Arabic language held sway in an age that created algebra, elucidated principles of optics, established the body’s circulation of blood, named stars, and created universities. But with the end of that period, science in the Islamic world essentially collapsed. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now.”

A tiny minority [albeit, rising] of these religious zealots has succeeded in intimidating the society at large. The result is that very few female students dare to be seen without veils in Pakistani universities.

The faculty members at the Quaid-i-Azam University agree “that over time most students — particularly veiled females — have largely lapsed into becoming silent note-takers, are increasingly timid, and are less inclined to ask questions or take part in discussions.” And the reason is the rising and violent power of the fanatics. A former student of the university issued the following warning on April 12, 2007, on FM radio:

“The government should abolish co-education. Quaid-e-Azam University has become a brothel. Its female professors and students roam in objectionable dresses. I think I will have to send my daughters of Jamia Hafsa [Islamic seminary in Islamabad, Figure 4] to these immoral women. They will have to hide themselves in hijab otherwise they will be punished according to Islam. Our female students have not issued the threat of throwing acid on the uncovered faces of women. However, such a threat could be used for creating the fear of Islam among sinful women. There is no harm in it. There are far more horrible punishments in the hereafter for such women.”

It’s a very serious matter when such a prestigious university is labeled as a brothel and the women are threatened by these Muslim criminals who justify their actions with the excuse of the dreamy hereafter.

In certain areas of Pakistan bombing of schools have become common place, leaving thousands of students without any place to learn.

Musharraf’s Involvement

Since the 1980s, Pakistan has become the epicenter of religious fanaticism with very bloody and destructive consequences. And so it was up to the governments of Pakistan to rein in this menace.

When General Pervez Musharraf came to power in a military coup in 1999, the Taliban peril, with all its barbarity and hatred of women, was already entrenched in Afghanistan. The US support of the Taliban had waned for many reasons. The people of Pakistan were fed up with the corrupt civilian leadership. It was a golden opportunity for Musharraf to strike at the Taliban by cutting off all kinds of aid, but he wasted the opportunity. This was his biggest crime.

The second biggest crime Musharraf committed was to allow the radical madrassas to flourish. At least some of the $11 billion in aid that Pakistan received from the US in the wake of September 11, could have been spent on ransoming as many children as possible from the madrassas and placing them in secular schools. This could have made a huge difference in their lives. He wasted that opportunity too. Instead, many more children joined the madrassas after September 11, 2001. (Many financially desperate parents send their children to madrassas where they receive free boarding, lodging, and food.) Even though Musharraf himself is not a religious person, he acted like a politician and joined hands with the Islamic parties in order to weaken the opposing secular and semi-secular political parties.

What do the radical madrassas produce? They produce war mongers, women-haters, and intolerant bigots. In these places, one sees students reciting the Qur’an in Arabic, a language they don’t understand, with their heads rocking back and forth like drug addicts. They are also taught Urdu, Pakistan’s national language with the alphabet letters being associated with words such as gun, jihad, etc.

Everything is in the Scripture

In every religion, there are followers who have this fantastic notion:

“The things the scientists are discovering now are already in our Holy Book [Gita, Qur’an, Bible, Hebrew Bible...].”

If such was the case, then:
• Moses would have used helicopter to see the God on Mount Sinai, instead of climbing it —(unless he liked hiking);
• Jesus’ resurrection from the dead could have been telecast live on TV;
• Muhammad could have used a spacecraft for his journey to the heavens;
• Krishna could have fought the Kurukshetra battle in a Toyota van covered up as a chariot;
• Buddha could have known about disease, old, age and other unpleasant things at a much earlier age through the internet.

Many devout people claim that the Qur’an has all knowledge in it. If that were true then computers, super colliders, satellites, and more would have been invented by the time of Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE.

To clarify my point: Let’s put a group of young children in a madrassa and let them keep on reciting Qur’an for a few years. Then what? Are they even going to be able to manufacture one pencil? No. (This holds true for all religious texts.)

Did Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Abdus Salam, and hundreds of thousands of others become scientists by reading the Vedas, Bible, Tanekh, Qur’an, and other religious scriptures? If that was the case, Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, then in the Netherlands, would have returned back to Pakistan in 1974 (when India exploded its first nuclear bomb code named the “Smiling Buddha”) and researched the bomb-making formula from the Qur’an and named it the “Laughing Allah.”

For the believers, reading the scriptures may provide personal solace and strengthen their belief and it may provide some values (including violence, which many of the scriptures contain.) That’s fine. But for those people and countries who want to survive and progress in this cutthroat world – they need to have modern education and state of the art technology. Pakistan and other Muslim countries cannot survive on Islam and the Qur’an. The custodians of these nations will have to rethink their strategy; and … time has almost run out.

B. R. Gowani can be reached at

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