Harnessing Madrasas as an Institution for Change in Afghanistan

Posted on: 19-09-2017

Nafay Choudhury

         By and large, the madrasa remains the most widespread educational institution in Afghanistan, providing instruction to pupils throughout the country, even in remote areas where the government has little or no presence. While a number of madrasas trace their patronage to the state, the vast majority of them operate unofficially. In a country greatly stretched for resources and where a large segment of the population views the government with suspicion, unofficial religious education plays a significant role in providing basic educational and religious training. The ability to harness the working capacity of madrasas requires understanding the political and governance role they play within the structure of Afghan society. If the development of a country and promotion of a nation’s identity are dependent upon education, then in the case of Afghanistan, madrasas represent an important catalyst for change.

            The entanglements between politics, authority and madrasa education in Afghanistan can be traced to the historical tensions in terms of authority between local communities and the state. As Thomas Barfield explains, throughout much of Afghanistan’s history, the state has had weak authority throughout the country. As a result, government authorities have always been particularly mindful of tribal opinions. The strained relation between local communities and the state is not due to some inherent characteristic of either but rather a result of recursive interactions in which the state asserts its authority on local communities, these communities resist unwelcome interference and the state modifies its policies accordingly. The most notable test of the state’s authority occurred during the reign of King Amanullah (1919-1929), whose hostile policies towards the ‘ulama was one of the reasons for his downfall. Amir Abdur Rahman (ruling from 1880-1901) adopted an Islamic rhetoric as a means of legitimating his authority; however, he ruled as a ruthless dictator, and thus it remains highly unlikely he had widespread support of the ‘ulama given his policies that targeted their authority. State politics and policies have always been functionally attached to the ability of local authorities to push back and mobilise if they felt the need.

            In Afghanistan, like in many other parts of the world, education is politics, as Professor Robert Hefner argues. The Afghan madrasa is inextricably linked to political authority, which in Afghanistan is shared between the state and local communities. The political machinery of the state has never fully disentangled itself from local communities, as the state has remained weak throughout its history and into the present. The nation-building process can thus be considered a continuing work-in-progress. The local community has always been a major locus of political authority with the semi- (and often fully-) autonomous ability to govern its affairs, including education.

            The forces of modernity have been slower in reaching Afghanistan than its neighbours, with a clear result that local madrasas have never faced a severe threat to their existence. Periods of state encroachment at the local level have led to contestations, which contribute to the ongoing interplay between the state and local communities; however, this engagement occurs in the context of a relatively weak state and relatively strong tribal authority. The continued presence and proliferation of community-driven madrasas reflects this fragile balance of authority between the state and local communities. All of this is not to say that the government has no authority at all. The state’s historical engagement with – rather than outright ostracism of – the ‘ulama through parts (though not all) of its history has fostered certain workable initiatives, such as state-sponsored madrasas beyond the city centres and within local communities. As Dr. Yahia Baiza explains in his thorough discussion of educational development in Afghanistan’s history, such initiatives have been most successful when supported by those communities, such as during the 1950s when the government supported madrasas with books and the curriculum, but also did not disrupt the general operating dynamic of the madrasa within the community. However, such practices remain the exception, with the autonomous, locally-supported madrasa being the norm.

            Given the government’s limited resources and weak authority outside of urban areas, local madrasas provide a service that complements rather than directly competes with state educational initiatives. Public school and public madrasas are most commonly associated with urban areas where government has a strong presence. The government is also able to sponsor madrasas in easily accessible rural areas, like those in the outskirts of major cities and towns. However, in areas distant from urban centres, the presence of the government is minimal. Private madrasas thus provide a public service where the government falls short. Education is a particularly pressing concern of the Afghan government as literacy has always been very low and even at present stands at a mere 31% according to UNESCO.

           Madrasas will remain widespread and authoritative in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. A clearer understanding of the historical trajectory, political influences and ideological struggles associated with Afghan madrasas would be a first step in better appreciating their operation in Afghan society. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the government is able to co-opt madrasas into its wider efforts to educate the population and produce citizens who are ideologically aligned with nation-building. In a society where religion is of paramount importance and the legitimacy of the government remains dubious, madrasas represent a crucial institution for bringing about change within the country.

Nafay Choudhury is an International Research Fellow at the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies and is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London. He has previously been a Visiting Scholar at the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg and an Assistant Professor at the American University of Afghanistan.

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