Maulanas heading all five different federations of madrassas in the country have ganged up against any effort by the state to reform the curricula being taught at their seminaries in any meaningful way. They feel that it is none of anyone’s business to scrutinize what they are teaching to over 3 million Pakistani children in their unhealthy iron grip, let alone change it. This calls for a hardening of the official stance, but it will be a miracle if the Nawaz government does anything of the sort.

Clearly, reforming the madrassas is something that the government is not really interested in. Had it not been for the consistent pressure from the military leadership, our oh-so-democratic government would not have bothered to go through even the motions of this topsy turvy discussion with the over-lords of various madrassa networks in the country. I say topsy turvy because instead of holding them to account for their crimes in the name of Islam, the government has sat them across the table to be lectured by them about what it can and cannot touch.

Isn’t this respect afforded to these maulanas more than a bit misplaced? Should we accept them as leaders of our faith just because they claim that position? Can we turn a blind eye to how they abuse that position for worldly gains? What in the world qualifies them to speak with such self-righteous authority about religion and religious education? Who has authorized them to speak for God? And why must our leaders appease the maulanas instead of taking them to task?

It’s not just the ruling party that mollycoddles the monster of madrassas and the professional maulanas who run it. The entire spectrum of political parties parading around in the parliament as our representatives, would rather not rock the structures of religious status quo too hard. Like every other pressing point on the national agenda, madrassah reforms too are unlikely to make any real headway in the murky soup of our multi-party democracy. There is a consensus on outsourcing religion to the professional clergy.

How else do we explain the failure of our political leaders to take on the monster of extremism by its horns? None of them has gathered the courage to reclaim Islam from the clutches of professional peddlers of faith, the maulanas who would like to turn it on its head to sell their sectarian and political franchises. None of them has bothered to articulate an enlightened narrative that could give meaning to religion in our lives without depending upon these experts and so-called scholars who have distorted it so completely.

In his dharna days, Imran Khan attempted to challenge the monopoly over faith claimed by the maulanas to a degree but he stopped short of taking it to where it should have led. Soon we saw him praying behind the same maulanas and deferring to their claim as guardians of our faith. Other leaders have failed to venture even that far.

Their rhetoric about the universal and peaceful message of Islam aside, our leaders are quick to defer to the authority of our maulanas and their myopic vision; maulanas who consider it their God-given right to judge people before the Day of Judgment and to coerce others to follow their brand of superstitions, observe hollowed out rituals and to believe in trivia as foundations of faith. Do our leaders not hear clear overtones of intolerance and violence in what these maulanas preach from their pulpits and in their seminaries?

What, after all, are they teaching to the children in their charge? What makes their medieval curricula reeking of superstition and ignorance so divine that they cannot be changed? Why must poor children be made to memorize selected texts designed to propagate sectarian divisions? Surely, it is not the message of Quran that these professional maulanas teach. Surely, they do not serve God but themselves.

A friend told me about his recent experience at a madrassa. Unlike me, he was of the view that those running the madrassas should be engaged and had gone there to understand how things work in that environment. What he encountered there cured him of his all-embracing goodness.

During his visit, he had the opportunity of witnessing a class on Hadith. A student was speed-reading selected segments from a book and the teacher would add his bit where he felt it necessary. When my friend asked the person taking him around about the basis of that selection, he was informed that the students were being taught those segments which supported the assertions of that particular sect in order to equip them to argue their case with members of other sects.

Just a day at the madrassa was enough to bring my friend around to my point of view; that when it comes to reforming the madrassas, the maulanas could never be a part of the solution. Besides, they would never voluntarily give up their claims of being the true custodians of Islam and the only ones who’ve got it right.

How could the maulanas agree to any reform of their institutions that diminish the importance of their so-called scholarship, the divisive and ignorant notions about Islam that they are so well-versed in; notions that they’re hell-bent on imparting on more than 3 million Pakistani children with no accountability whatsoever. How could they endanger their careers that they have invested so much time and energy into?

Clearly, any meaningful reform of our madrassas will have to be enforced by the state. The best option, in my opinion, is to nationalise every single madrassa in the country and declare them as public schools. Religious education should be about teaching the children how to read the Quran, not for collecting sawabs but to seek guidance from it.

As for the maulanas, they should be sent to rehabilitation camps to unlearn the sectarian dogma drummed into their heads and to learn skills that help them become useful members of society. It would give them an opportunity to repent for their sins and to learn about the true message of Quran that they have distorted beyond recognition.