For the past eight years, ICRD has been engaging Pakistan’s madrasas (private Islamic religious schools) in teacher training and capacity-building programs that promote curricular and pedagogical enhancement, with a strong emphasis on religious tolerance, human rights, conflict resolution, and critical thinking skills.

These madrasas serve a critical need in Pakistan, often providing room, board, clothing, and books in addition to education for many of Pakistan’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, as well as students from more affluent families who are seeking religious education.  Despite the fact that an estimated 2-3 million students attend madrasas (much higher numbers when part-time students are factored in), most educational enhancement and peacebuilding initiatives in Pakistan have not engaged the madrasas.

ICRD’s educational enhancement effort is succeeding because (1) the madrasa leaders view it as their own, (2) all the suggested changes are grounded in Islamic principles, and (3) historical Islamic achievements in areas of education and religious tolerance provide an inspirational incentive to do better.  Although initially subject to a high degree of suspicion, this effort to date engaged 2,700 madrasa leaders from more than 1,600 madrasas.


ICRD is now receiving more requests for training than it can accommodate from madrasas across the country.  Madrasa administrators are also seeking assistance in developing the capability to teach their students basic subjects like math, science, and English—disciplines that are currently either not being taught or are being taught with too little expertise.

ICRD is taking steps in the immediate term to:

  1. Expand its Master Trainer programs, which equip madrasa teachers to train other madrasa teachers.
  2. Develop Teacher Training Institutes in key Pakistani universities through which madrasa faculty can become certified. This will build upon successful programs already conducted in partnership with the Universities of Karachi and Peshawar and with Kohat University.
  3. Expand the participation of female teachers of girls’ madrasa in these programs.
  4. Support madrasa leaders and indigenous scholars in developing model curriculums for Pakistani madrasas that are based on best educational practices from throughout the Muslim world, and in developing new textbooks on peace and justice.
  5. Recruit selected madrasa leaders and Master Trainers to participate in overseas development programs to enhance their educational and intercultural skills and institutional partnerships.
  6. Expand collaboration with the ITMP National Madrasa Oversight Board to facilitate educational enhancement initiatives.

In addition, madrasa leaders are included in other ICRD programs, such as:

  1. Interfaith seminars to facilitate increased cooperation between Muslim clerics and Christian pastors in reducing religious extremism and discrimination.
  2. The training of Pakistani imams for promoting interfaith, intersectarian, and intercultural coexistence; conflict resolution skills; and effective communication skills.
  3. Specialized training for journalists of madrasa and religious publications to build their skills in critical thinking, objective reporting, and reducing biases imparted to students through their publications.
  4. The development of a US-Pakistan Inter-religious Consortium that will bring together Pakistani and American religious leaders who lead interfaith organizations or initiatives in order to facilitate mutual capacity-building and cross-cultural cooperation in addressing issues of mutual concern, especially as they affect US-Pakistani relations.

Madrasa Enhancement and Global Security

Once the pinnacle of learning excellence in the world, with curriculums including Medicine, Mathematics and Astronomy, Islamic religious schools (madrasas) in Pakistan responded to the secular threat of British colonialism by retreating into limited, insular institutions focused on rote memorization of the Qur’an and the study of Islamic principles. Students emerging from a number of these institutions are not only indoctrinated in radical interpretations of Islam, but they are incapable of grappling with contemporary problems. This makes them highly susceptible to recruitment by extremist organizations.

pak madrasa1Since 2004, the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD) has engaged Pakistani madrasa leaders in teacher training programs that promote curricular and pedagogical enhancement, with an emphasis on religious tolerance, human rights, and critical thinking. ICRD’s approach is succeeding where others have not because the madrasa leaders treat the reform effort as their own, and because all suggested changes are grounded in Islamic principles. Although initially subject to a high degree of suspicion, the scope of this effort to date has involved more than 5000 madrasa leaders, with almost all of them from the more radical areas of the country.

Given the position of respect and influence that madrasa leaders command as religious authorities among their students and their larger communities, they have tremendous potential to impact Pakistan’s security and social development. When engaged in the above manner, a number of them have risked their lives to counter radicalism and become powerful agents for peace. A few examples:

• ICRD played an instrumental role in securing the release of 21 Korean missionaries held hostage by the Taliban in 2007, by engaging the Afghan captors through its indigenous Pakistani partners.
• A militant madrasa leader intending to discredit an ICRD workshop in the Taliban-controlled Swat Valley declared afterward that he had for the first time experienced the “soul of the Holy Qur’an” and its peaceful intent. As a result, he changed what he was pak madrasa2teaching his students and told them why.
• When a Christian girl was accused of violating Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law by allegedly burning the Qur’an, ICRD mobilized some of its workshop veterans who met on-scene with local Christians and mosque officials. They then elicited media statements from high-level Muslim religious figures, condemning the obvious attempt to victimize the girl. The local imam was later taken into custody for fabricating the allegations.

In 2012, consistent with its goal of creating capacity rather than dependency, ICRD established an indigenous NGO in Pakistan, which has continued the work by: 1) establishing Teacher Training Institutes in key Pakistani universities for certifying madrasa faculty; 2) developing model madrasa curriculums based on best educational practices from throughout the Muslim world; 3) developing a Qur’anic Peace Text for use in all Pakistani madrasas; and 4) increasing its interfaith training programs to promote cooperation between Muslim clerics and Christian pastors in reducing religious extremism.

The success of the Madrasa Program has led to major grants from the State Department to (1) Combat Sectarian Violence in Pakistan and (2) Empower Pakistani women in Countering Violent Extremism.

Countering Sectarian Narratives in Pakistan

Pakistan is home to an incredible diversity of Islamic communities, with the second largest pak flagpopulation of Muslims in the world. Though various sects have existed side by side for generations, a surge in violence inspired by sectarian animosity has left over 3,000 people dead in the past decade. This bloodshed has been fueled by extremist organizations—from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) to al-Qaeda—which propagate intolerant and exclusivist ideologies. These extremists galvanize popular support by declaring that certain faith traditions and communities are deviant and foreign, including other Islamic traditions.

This violence has contributed to broader instability in the region, and there is a desperate need to shift the national discourse in this religiously-diverse society to promote a culture of harmony and tolerance. Overturning decades of hostility and mistrust, however, requires a coordinated effort that brings religious authority together with strategic communications. Most efforts to counter sectarian ideas emerge from religious scholars who do not always have access to the communities where it is most urgent to disseminate their message. Credible Pakistani scholars and experts must develop connections with local leaders, whose access, legitimacy and authority can alter religious narratives at a grassroots level in a systematic fashion.

ICRD and its network of local partners are working to develop and disseminate new narratives that will challenge sectarian divisiveness and promote peaceful coexistence in Pakistan. By convening major religious and civil society stakeholders who possess a variety of relevant skills and expertise, ICRD is working to: 1) identify and deconstruct existing narratives that promote sectarian conflict; 2) develop the content for countering those narratives; and 3) generate concrete strategies for disseminating that content, in the form of a practical toolkit.

Pak secThe strategies and materials in this toolkit will form the basis for training teams of mid-level civil society and religious leaders—including imams, madrasa teachers, journalists, and leaders of local civil society organizations—to promote messages of tolerance. With ICRD support, these advocates will conduct outreach activities in their communities, such as speaking in mosques, publishing articles in print or social media, or coordinating multi-sect community service projects. Beginning with a pilot team based in Multan, advocates will be mobilized in Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar.

While these efforts are absolutely necessary to build local support and generate a long-term commitment to inter-sectarian peace, the advocates will not be equipped to deal with acute eruptions of sectarian violence. To complement their preventive activities, ICRD and its local partners will train and mobilize one Rapid Response Team (RRT) for each of the four provinces, made up of religious and civil society leaders who possess formidable local credibility and have a proven commitment to inter-sectarian work. The members of these teams will work with the local advocates to identify active or potential escalations of sectarian tension and converge on afflicted areas to prevent or resolve the conflict, while enhancing the local capacity to defuse the problem and respond to future challenges.

Prominent members of ICRD’s Interfaith Leadership Network will assist in broadcasting the efforts of the advocates and the RRTs through print and social media at a national level. In order to sustain these activities beyond the length of the current grant, ICRD and its local partners will convene selected advocates and RRT members to share best practices, and lessons learned. They will create concrete plans for generating local support and continuing the dissemination of narratives to support peaceful coexistence.

Pakistani and American Women Combating Violent Extremism

Though women play important roles in both fueling and reducing violent conflict world-wide, they are often overlooked in efforts to address violent extremism. In Pakistan, nowhere is this separation more critical than in the madrasa religious schools, where the number of girls’ madrasas has reached 2,000 and continues to grow. These schools have been largely excluded from national and international discussions of extremism, but offer a social and religious legitimacy that secular organizations and institutions do not, and are thus uniquely positioned to influence the next generation of Pakistani women. Efforts aimed at challenging the seemingly overwhelming threat of violent extremism will be significantly strengthened by enhancing opportunities for cooperation between these madrasas and secular activists.

rebecca pakFor more than a decade, ICRD has engaged thousands of madrasa leaders across Pakistan in programs that address pedagogy and human rights and critical thinking skills, religious tolerance and collaboration, and conflict resolution – all to diminish student susceptibility to extremist recruitment. After years of building trust with the madrasa leadership, ICRD was invited to incorporate girls’ madrasas into its ongoing work. Based on this experience, ICRD is now positioned to break down social and international barriers and bring together women from Pakistan and the United States who are committed to collaborating in the fight against violent extremism; to learn from one another’s skills, insights, and lived experience.

In late 2015, ICRD began a project to enhance cooperation between female civil society and religious leaders from Pakistan and the United States and to empower representatives of selected girls’ madrasas to counter extremism in their communities. ICRD is working in partnership with the Pakistan-based PAIMAN Alumni Trust, a member of ICRD’s Interfaith Leadership Network (ILN), which brings to bear its renowned expertise in engaging women in conflict transformation and peacebuilding.

The program will convene representatives from four major cities in Pakistan together with rebecca pak 2Pakistani and American civil society and religious leaders who possess strategic expertise in countering extremism. These individuals will: a) discuss and identify challenges in combating extremism in Pakistani communities; b) share relevant skills and experiences; and c) establish an international network dedicated to cross-cultural collaboration countering extremism. Emerging from these discussions, participants will design four locally-relevant pilot projects to counter extremism, which will be led by the madrasa participants.

Over the course of the following year, ICRD and PAIMAN will support the implementation of these projects. Through this new network, activists and experts in both Pakistan and the United States will mentor the madrasa participants and assist with project implementation. By actively cooperating in an area of shared concern, these women will have an opportunity to break down barriers between otherwise segregated communities and dispel international distrust. The network will also work to share the stories of these madrasas in order to challenge widely-held prejudices toward madrasas, illustrating the invaluable contributions of local women to mitigating the rise of violent extremism in their communities.

These projects will serve as small-scale pilots, to test the feasibility and impact of various locally-designed strategies. At the end of the initial year, all participants will reconvene to discuss lessons learned and look for opportunities to expand or replicate these projects at other girls’ madrasas across the nation.

Project Impact

Given the position of respect and influence that madrasa leaders, as religious authorities, command among their students and their larger communities (through their Friday sermons in the mosques), madrasas have tremendous potential to impact Pakistan’s security and its social development.  When engaged in the above manner, madrasa leaders have risked their lives to counter radicalism and demonstrated their ability to become powerful agents for peace and educational enhancement.  For example:

  • ICRD, through one of its madrasa partners, played an instrumental role in securing the release of 21 Korean missionaries held hostage by Afghan Taliban in the summer of 2007 by organizing an informal delegation of religious leaders who engaged the captors on the basis of Islamic principles.
  • At another workshop involving leaders from 16 madrasas surrounding the Swat Valley, one participant, who later acknowledged being a commander in a militant group, declared toward the end that he had attended in order to discredit all that the workshop was teaching.  But as a result of his participation, he now felt that for the first time in his life, he had experienced the true soul of the Holy Qur’an and its peaceful intent, stating, “My kids need to know that only through being peaceful can they spread true Islam . . .” A return visit by ICRD found him teaching these ideas to his students and telling them why.
  • In follow-up to ICRD training programs for female teachers of girls’ madrasas, one Punjabi village hosted a gathering of over 200 female madrasa, parliamentary, and civil society leaders, who issued a declaration condemning religious intolerance and the killing of members of other faiths or sects as being un-Islamic and committed themselves to working to end hatred and extremism.  In addition, several madrasas have opened their first-ever vocational training centers for female students, setting an important precedent for other female madrasas.
  • An independent third-party evaluation of the ICRD madrasa project by the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice found that:

-92.9% of survey respondents felt that they better understand the importance of incorporating social and scientific disciplines into the madrasa curriculums.

-61.4% have begun teaching (and encouraging others in their madrasa to teach) social and scientific disciplines.

-56.1% of the respondents stated that they now increasingly employ interactive and experimental teaching styles.

-98.3% of survey respondents agreed that they better understand the role of Islam in promoting religious tolerance and dialogue as a result of the ICRD program.

-59.6% indicated that as a result of their participation in the ICRD programs, they have begun teaching (and have encouraged others to teach) Islamic principles in support of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

-43.9% indicated that they have organized seminars and invited other scholars and non-Muslim members of the community to speak about co-existence and peace.

-66.7% stated that they have incorporated these themes into Friday sermons and other lectures.

-52.6% stressed that the project had led to a change in negative perceptions about non-Muslims and Western society and culture.

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