Concerns over the vast and unregulated country-wide network of religious seminaries in Pakistan is not entirely new. Those who call for reform are often accused of being anti-religion and any recommendations from the government or elsewhere are strongly resisted. Fearing severe backlash, no one so far has been able to introduce even minor meaningful changes in the current system, let alone completely overhaul it. So, nothing changes. Madrassas continue to grow and operate absent of any substantial governmental oversight. Funds from dubious sources abroad flow in unabated. Predictably, several seminary students have been found to be involved in terrorism-related activities.

Contents of the “National Internal Security Policy” reveal that no less than 22,000 madrassas are responsible for promoting terrorism. Publication and distribution of hate material for the purpose of brainwashing impressionable minds has also been confirmed. ‘Leaving madrassas alone in peace’ is simply not an option anymore. Not when doing so is akin to risking the peace and stability of the wider country. Aiming to curb the menace, the government plans to enhance its role by bringing madrassas under its national education system. But, this is all on paper. Whether we will live to see practical implementation of the plan cannot be said with certainty.

A knee-jerk reaction to the madrassa problem would be to suggest that they be shut down immediately. After all, 22,000 of them are promoting a toxic ideology, and its effects on the common people are far too real. Furthermore, madrassas are not a legitimate alternative to conventional education. Spiritual/religious knowledge doesn’t help buy bread. Nor does it lead to revolutionary advances in cancer research or helps build big buildings. So, really, what do we stand to lose if our children stopped going to the local seminary? A lot, actually.

In most cases, the choice of sending one’s children to a religious seminary is guided by the realities of life. It’s not religion alone which attracts students, or parents. It’s the free food, free shelter and the overall caretaker set-up in place – all of which is not being provided by the state. This is what motivates rational parents to send their children to such madrassas, who then exploit these children for their own motives. For the poor, it’s either the madrassa or the street. The local madrassa is not at war with the state-run institutions, but filling in the vast vacuum, which exists due to limited resources as well as plain negligence. The government’s efforts should focus on establishing a viable alternative, on a counter narrative, on a better option which allows these families to exercise choice. Like any of us, they too are deeply concerned for the welfare of their children, and have been forced to hand them over to the lesser evil.