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Massive Protest Gathering of Madrasa Students Fails to Oust Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

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Perhaps taking a leaf from Egyptian history of massive anti-government demonstrations in Cairo which culminated in the removal of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and in the removal of the first democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi in 2013, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) attempted to dislodge the elected government of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan through massive protest sit-in.

A disappointed Maulana Fazalur Rehman announced on Wednesday November 13) the end of 13 day sit-in protest in Islamabad. Rehman began his so-called Azadi (freedom) march on October 27 from Karachi and reached Islamabad on October 31 with a single demand: Prime Minister Imran Khan should resign immediately.

Why Imran Khan government should resign? Because it is incompetent and illegitimate since there was widespread rigging in Pakistan's 2018 general election that saw the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Istaqlal party of Imran Khan sweep to power.

Real motives of the march & sit-in

While Maulana Fazalur Rehman claims that election rigging, financial crisis and bad governance is the motivation behind the rally, however, analysts believe that Rehman only has his own political agenda at heart while organizing the 'Azadi March'.

"He is trying to increase his relevance in Pakistani politics. He used to be very relevant in the two previous civilian governments [of the PML-N and the PPP] and even during the [military] rule of Pervez Musharraf," says political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi, the former caretaker chief minister of Punjab.

"But after being side-lined recently, he thinks can reassert his presence this way, because he knows that there is a dissatisfaction [among the masses] against the government's policies and the two largest opposition parties have their grievances as well and he's looking to cash in on that."

Observers also note Rehman regularly warning the government against taking action against the madrassas, with Imran Khan vowing to mainstream over 30,000 seminaries and bring them under state control. Experts argue that Rehman and his party extract much of their political and street clout from these madrsas.

Madarsa reforms plan

In July last, Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood announced that the government has agreed on a plan to overhaul instruction at madrasas or religious schools to bring the institutions closer into line with conventional schools.

He said that the Ministry of Education will set up its 12 regional offices in different parts of the country to facilitate the registration of the madrasas. He insisted that the government is not "taking over" madrasas but said that those madrasas, which will not be registered will be closed down. Similarly, he said that the madrasas, which will be found involved in spreading hatred, sectarianism will also lose their registration and thus would be closed down as well.

Second aspect of the Madrasa reform program, he said is the introduction of compulsory subjects like English, Pakistan Studies, Maths etc to enable the students of religious schools to appear for Federal Board's Matric/ FSC/ FA exams. Shafqat Mehmood said that this particular initiative will open variety of career choices for the Madrasa students as well. The minister added that the regional offices of the education ministry will facilitate the madrasas not only in their registration but will also extend help in other matters like the issuance of visas for their foreign students. He said that depending on the availability of funding, the government will also financially assist these madrasas in the hiring of teachers for compulsory subjects.

Playing religious card

Not surprising, Maulana Fazalur Rehman gathered students from Islamic seminaries (madarsas) on the ploy that Imran Khan is about to recognize Israel and amending blasphemy law as well as changing the status of Ahmadis who were declared as non-Muslims in 1974 through a constitutional amendment.

In the lead-up to the so-called freedom (Azadi) March, Rehman regularly repeated his accusation of Imran Khan being a "Jewish agent," citing the Pakistani premier's meeting with George Soros in New York.

The party leadership has also maintained that their protest rally is "against those who set free" Asia Bibi, a Christian woman acquitted in a blasphemy case. The party leadership protested against her acquittal last year as well.

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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