Madrassas (school-like religious seminaries, mostly for young boys who train to become Islamic theologians) and dars (female-only institutional and/or home-based study circles and diploma courses) constitute an informal and unregulated religious education space in Pakistan. Dars, often taught by self-declared authorities on religion, are increasingly delivered online and could contribute to radicalisation; until now, there is no coherent strategy in Pakistan that takes the online element sufficiently into account. Tackling online radicalisation would require the Pakistani state to reflect deeply on its scholastic apparatus, the shortcomings of which often pave the way for digital Islam to serve as the alternative for a state-approved religious education.
No Pakistani government has made serious efforts till date at officially inscribing the number of registered and unregistered dars authorities in Pakistan. Additionally, nor have they probed into the dars classes’ syllabus, intended outreach and impacts, which happen to be far more advanced than that of madrassas, given the former’s grasp of modern-day technology. While madrassas are generally male-centric (females mostly attend female-only or home-based dars lectures that draw upon a socially reformative piety movement for Muslim women), they rely upon in-person teaching to disseminate their ideas amongst students and followers. However, the dars system has mastered the digital realm and possibly fostered an online followership that now transcends previously established boundaries – both geographical and ideological. The digital decentralisation of Islam and the expansionist nature of the World Wide Web and social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and lately TikTok have conjunctly resulted in myriads of websites and individuals practicing a rather colossal amount of digital religious authority unlike ever before. Every passing day, it becomes easier for social media users and religious website administrators with a large following to take Islamic jurisprudence and interpretation into their own hands to spread their understanding of Islam amongst followers, despite not being qualified to do so. It is online followership and popularity, rather than a formal education, that seems to be the criteria for what it takes to become an ‘expert’ in online debates on Islam.
Dars-led education has since the 1990s been based on the conception of relatively new and influential organisations like al-Huda. Al-Huda has been operating a home-based, school-like religious education system for women. The questions that were raised globally about al-Huda’s doctrine (it self-admittedly differs from orthodox religious schools as it claims to provide a modern Islamic education) in 2015 came in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on foreign soil, long after the perpetrator, Tashfeen Malik, first started depicting tangibly radical tendencies as a dars student in Pakistan. Tashfeen Malik’s act of physically committing terrorism might have been an isolated case – purely in terms of violence as dars classes typically propagate for lifestyle changes and non-violent social outreach from home – but her ideological shift towards a certain interpretation of Islam was noticeable years before during her days as al-Huda’s student. Malik’s palpable change of lifestyle, which included distancing herself from her liberal friends and holistically altering the way she conducted herself after joining al-Huda, paired with the rising power of cyber-radicalisation that the dars culture has adapted to, should have by now raised serious questions about the very definition of radicalisation and what it means when applied to the role of women.
Whilst male-centric radicalisation often leads to violence or an acceptance of it, for women, religious piety is a state of mind that they are tasked with to inculcate in the minds of their families and social circles. It can originate from the cyberweb or a dars class, or both. The pursuit of religious piety does not always end in violence for females because ‘soft-power’ radicalisation limits their gendered role to that of agents/messengers of outreach, rather than of violent actors. An apt way of describing it would be to turn the saying “if you educate a woman, you educate a village” into “if you radicalise a woman in the cyber age, you radicalise a village”. Albeit, the Pakistani counter-radicalisation authorities’ focus largely remains on madrassas as the main area for reform whereas dars are neglected by the state.
Questions about Religious Education prior to its Digitalisation
Religious education – and the burning question of who should be able to invoke societal authority on it, and why – has a long-standing history in the Indian subcontinent. When modern education was introduced to India during the British Raj, it was viewed as a symbol of colonial power meant to solely benefit the ruling elite. At the time, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan urged Muslims to warmly embrace modern education and adapt their method of Islamic learning to the lessons of science and rationality, in his movement for conjoining Islamic education with scientific enlightenment.
Similarly, many Pakistani Muslims face the question of whether to send their children to religious schools, namely madrassas and dars, or to open themselves to a modern education today. In recent times, the former has been deemed a less desirable option in Pakistani society, in light of the radicalised syllabus that was systemically inculcated in madrassa and dars courses in the late 1970s, when the Pakistani military dictatorship under General Zia-ul-Haq was assisting the United States in driving out the Soviets from Afghanistan with the creation of the Mujahideen guerillas. Ever since, many madrassas and dars networks have maintained a reputation for holding unspoken sympathies for radical groups that they extend to the masses on a grassroots level through their religious seminars.
When it comes to self-motivated radicalisation, social media’s algorithms act as an “echo chamber”. People with certain ideologies have the tendency to befriend, marry, and surround themselves with others who share their beliefs online. In the Pakistani dars culture, the echo usually comes from within the extended circles of those who command religious authority. If a 40-year-old, middle-class woman living in an urban set-up does not have the time or wealth (or liberty) to attend a rather demanding university course in religious studies, she is likely to end up at a dars class where she would meet like-minded women including matchmakers, friends and socialites (who socialise for the cause of religion rather than fashionable wealth). When it comes to dars, it is not just an education system; it is an entire lifestyle that constantly reverberates a certain version of female piety for Muslim women in Pakistan. Their classes/diplomas are more affordable, suitable for difficult time-management (evening/weekend classes and online lectures), and can be attended from the comfort of one’s home – as compared to the otherwise rigid Pakistani education system that leaves many women opting out of a hectic schedule at unhelpful academic faculties.
The Emphasis on Female Piety in Online Dars
Interestingly, the idea of piety that the dars culture promotes prefers for its female students to stay at home, with many of them acting in the capacity of next-generation, missionary teachers after finishing their diplomas or courses. The said diplomas and courses are not analogous to formal degrees in religious education that a certified scholar would hold but are viewed with the very same reverence within dars circles. Since most middle-class women who attend dars are technologically literate, they further the ‘lessons’ of their teachers by taking the piety movement online. Whatsapp, Youtube, Facebook etc. are now regular platforms for dars study circles and socialising.
If it came to cyber law, it would be years before proper checks would be made on the dissemination of radical ideology through social networking applications, but if it came to a formal education system, the government would be able to exercise its authority to keep a check on the mandate and progress of theological academia; a policy direly needs to be incorporated in Pakistan’s efforts at counter-radicalisation. There is a pressing need for the government to include the dars system in their strategy for merging informal religious education into mainstream pedagogy, while keeping in mind that numerous women rely upon easily (remotely, if it is online) accessible religious education that simply needs to be brought under the jurisdiction of the right authorities for checks and balances. As long as Pakistani women keep turning towards the Internet for informal, home-based education, they are likely to come across radical material on dars websites. The Internet, as a vast realm, cannot be contained, but the means to a state-sanctioned religious education can certainly be standardised.
Radicalisation – even in the most conservative and gender-segregated societies – is never restricted to a sole gender. Ever since Pakistan was immersed in the American-led fight against the USSR in the late 1990s, analysts and experts have looked towards male-centric counter-radicalisation strategies. Assuming that a patriarchal society would prevent its women from participating in the said fight would be ignorant and evasive of the position that women adopt to become pious. To truly understand the process of how individuals within a society are radicalised and then de-radicalised, the role and place of women ought to be studied and understood. An ideal starting point for Pakistani counter-radicalisation authorities would be to examine the transformative experience that female attendees of dars go through and how it impacts their identity and ideology as Pakistani, Muslim women who share a common religion with the Middle East and their language, history and culture with neighbouring India.
Addressing radicalisation in the dars system requires countering advances to be made in real life, as well as in the digital realm. However, no amount of online censoring can truly replace the missing link of a reliable (safe), flexible (timetables/evening classes) and affordable formal education. To truly promote a mainstream system of religious education would require the Pakistani state to provide teaching positions within their universities to qualified scholars who would encourage critical thinking rather than a typically literal or rote-based learning of religion – in their class syllabus as well as in online classes. This move would certainly face backlash from previously self-established teachers who – with their families – have for generations been holding authority (through word-of-mouth promotion) on religious education without due qualification. Naturally, the upholding of a certified and formal religious education would remove them from positions as religious mentors and have them replaced with qualified professors, but it would lead to the kind of deradicalisation that Pakistan needs. The kind that would include, and hopefully empower, women the right way.
Syeda Iqraa Bukhari recently finished her Master’s degree in International Security from the University of Warwick, with the PAIS MA scholarship. She is currently working at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) as an Erasmus+ Recent Graduate Trainee and is conducting research on topics relating to politics, (counter) radicalisation, intelligence and security, with a special focus on South Asia.
This piece was also published in the PRIF Blog series.