Madrassas in India, Pakistan Moving in Different Directions

New Delhi, India - While the role of traditional Islamic schools or madrassas in Pakistan in spreading radical ideology continues to generate concern, similar types of schools in neighboring India reportedly oppose a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

As the U.S. State Department earlier this month was releasing its annual International Religious Freedom Report, in India many Muslims were joining their Hindu compatriots to celebrate the Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi.

In contrast to the report's observation that unregulated madrassas are teaching "extremist doctrine in support of terrorism" to students in Pakistan, observers say the situation in India is markedly different.

Social activist Asghar Ali said India's secularism has impacted the Muslim outlook, compelling Indian madrassas to modernize their curricula.

Ali, who organizes youth camps aimed at fostering Hindu-Muslim friendship, said the recent inter-religious cooperation in the Hindu festival "reiterates [the] strength of India's pluralistic culture that allows different sects and religions to learn and co-exist peacefully."

Traditionally, Muslim societies frown on the emancipation of women, and madrassas usually teach Islamic theology to boys only. In India, many Madrassas not only admit girls, but have also integrated English, Math, Sciences and Information Technology into their programs.

There are an estimated 35,000 madrassas in India, many that teach comprehensive skills to students of both sexes, as approved by the country's education department.

According to Abdul Qayyum Akhtar, founder of an independent madrassa in the city of Jaipur with a roll of 1,500 students, more than 50 percent of the country's madrassas have adopted the government syllabus and examination system. J.M. Khan, an Indian former senior civil servant, agrees with that estimate.

The U.S. religious freedom report says little about Indian madrassas, but does praise an incident in March 2006, when "one of India's leading Islamic seminaries issued a fatwa against terrorists targeting places of worship and killing innocent people."

"Just as all 'Hindu' schools do not spew venom against Islam and Christianity, all madrassas do not necessarily nurture fundamentalist ideas," said Dr. Mushirul Hasan, a historian and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University.

He said madrassas tend to flourish where governments don't provide enough "secular" educational institutions, thus compelling poor children to flock to religious schools.

While Indian governments have succeeded in persuading many madrassas to reform and adopt country's examination system, this hasn't occurred in Pakistan.

Under reforms instituted by President Pervez Musharraf, the teaching of sectarian or religious hatred and violence is prohibited in Pakistani madrassas, but problems persist.

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, extremist groups in Pakistan continue to operate mosques and madrassas. The ICG said the reforms were "lacking substance, legal muscle or an intent to institutionalize long-term change." The group attributed this to a reluctance by Musharraf to antagonize Islamic clergy.

Pakistan has nearly 13,000 madrassas, although the ICG reckons that many such schools in border regions particularly susceptible to Taliban and al-Qaeda influence are not accounted for.

Mohammed Rakesh, a scholar of the ancient Jain religion, said India's secular framework and tolerant culture has helped to soften rigid religious attitudes.

Rakesh, who recently toured Pakistan, said the dynamics of India's multi-racial society obligate Indian Muslims to pursue modern education, unlike Pakistan.

"While Indian Muslims have understood and grabbed incentives of modern education, most Pakistanis are still averse to change due to an insulated society," he said.

Rakesh said despite Western leanings, influential Pakistanis dread antagonizing Islamic clergy who have consistently disapproved of Western dress, makeup and scientific endeavor, viewing it as un-Islamic and immoral.

Muslim cricketers, film stars, writers and artists have been more successful and popular in Hindu-dominated India than their counterparts have been in Pakistan.

In Jaipur, Muslim clerics recently backed a unique residential educational camp for Muslims and non Muslim students of both sexes, who were expected to eat, pray and stay together - an experiment one cleric said afterwards could only have taken place in India.