The Pakistani media has been on fire post Peshawar attack, with it directing a lot of its attention towards the Madrassas, with blame being put on this institution for terrorism and sectarian attacks in Pakistan. There have been campaigns, driven by the media across cities in Pakistan to re-claim the Madrassas and many Maulana’s have become a symbol of public hate, with people calling for their arrest. People, like Pervez Hoodhboy are arguing that Madrassas are conveyor belts, creating dangerous mindsets that lead to terrorist and sectarian attacks in Pakistan. All of these claims have put immense pressure on the Madrassas to undergo reform and for tighter regulation of these ‘Nurseries of Jihad’ in Pakistan. But, the question remains, how true is all of this? Are Madrassas to be held responsible for the rise of terrorism and sectarian violence in Pakistan? Only through moving away from the emotional media driven rhetoric and actually looking at some data or studies, can we arrive at a conclusion on the link, if any, between Madrassas, terrorism and sectarian violence in Pakistan.

A distinction and a very important one to prevent a conflation in the debate, but missed by the media, is the one between Jihad in places such as Kashmir and the terrorism/sectarian violence that Pakistan has experienced over the last 14 years, such as indiscriminate bombings in market places, mosques, educational institutes and army installations. Scholars such as Dr Christine Fair, from Georgetown University and Professor Tariq Rahman from Beacon House University, have investigated the link between Madrassas and support for Jihad in places such as Kashmir. Their findings have been eye opening, with Professor Rahman finding that Madrassa students are more likely than students in the other two school systems to support Jihad. However, he also found that students in the far larger public school system expressed high degrees of support for Jihad. For example, whereas 60 percent of Madrasah students supported all out war to take the disputed Kashmir region, 40 percent of students from Pakistan’s Urdu-medium public schools, and 26 percent of students in private schools, held the same view. Similarly, when students were asked whether they supported taking Kashmir through the use of jihadist proxies: 53 percent of Madrasah students shared this view, compared to 33 percent of those in public schools and 22 percent in private schools. While the Madrasah students show consistently higher support for war and use of Jihadist proxies, public school students, who comprise some 70 percent of the educational market, displayed levels of support for the same policies. Given this data, it is fair to say that Madrassas show support for Jihad in Kashmir, as do those in public and private schools- so if Madrassas are to be witch hunted for this by the media, surely the same must be done for public and private schools? But on the point of whether Madrassas support, encourage, prepare or perpetuate indiscriminate terrorist attacks, such as the thousands Pakistan has seen post 2001, there is no data or study to prove this, raising the question as to why then the media is pushing this narrative without proof. Surely, the media has to be responsible in its coverage or risks the demonization of Madrassas and its students across Pakistan? Leading to intolerance and hatred towards them, which would be ironic given that the media presents itself as a beacon of tolerance.

With regards to sectarian violence -‘Radds’ (Refutations) and ‘Munazarrats’ (Debates) have been part of religious education throughout the centuries, with Muslim scholars taking on the Greek philosophers and those influenced by their thoughts, leading to the development of Ilm ul Kalam (Scholastic Theology). Even if we were to look to the subcontinent’s history, we will realize the high level of ‘Radds’ and ‘Munazarrats’ between the Deoband and Braweli school of thoughts, such as the very bitter 1928 ‘Munazarrats’ between the two and Ahmad Raza Khan, was well known for his constant refutations of the Deodand, Ahle-Hadith and Shia. Yes, there is no doubt these refutations raised sectarian tensions between Brawelis and others, leading to blows but never did it lead to indiscriminate bombings and killings between them as Pakistan has experienced. This point is mentioned by Professor Rahman in his paper ‘Madrassas: The potential for violence in Pakistan’ and he adds that although it may be true to say that the Madrassas have contributed to creating an atmosphere of sectarianism, to conclude from this that this leads to violence would be a step too far. He mentions that other factors would need to be taken into consideration, such as foreign policy issues; for example the support of Hezbollah to the Bashar Assad regime has contributed to the flaring of tensions between the Sunni and Shia groupings in Pakistan and the petro dollars of the Saudis have contributed to increased rifts between Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan. Dr Fair in her paper, ‘The Enduring Madrasah Myth,’ reinforces the point that sectarianism does not inevitably lead to violence but this depends on externalities that can act as catalysts to violence between religious groups depending on external strategic interests and objectives.

In sum, the media claim that the support for Jihad is particular to those in Madrassas, is wrong as support is found across the schooling system in Pakistan and there is also no direct evidence to support the link between Madrassas and indiscriminate terrorist and sectarian attacks in Pakistan, in particular post 2001, leading to the question: what is the media is trying to hide?

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS. Follow him on Twitter