PESHAWAR -- The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government is reforming a leading seminary to prevent extremism.
"We have to de-radicalise the students of seminaries and save them from falling into the hands of extremists," Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the KP ruling party, said in Peshawar June 26.
Concerns have arisen about radicalisation going on inside seminaries if authorities do not pay enough attention.
The KP government recently allocated Rs. 293.3m (US $2.8m) in its 2016-2017 budget to reform the curriculum at Darul Uloom Haqqania (DH), a massive seminary in Nowshera District.
The plan is to educate children in math, computers and the sciences.
"If we marginalise children, they will become monsters," Khan said. "We have to give them quality education like government schools and enable graduates to find government jobs."
DH is co-operating in implementing the reform, he said.
DH, the largest seminary in Pakistan, is run by Maulana Sami ul Haq, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-S) party.
Many Afghan Taliban leaders reportedly graduated from DH.
"We plan to enforce progressive reforms and integrate seminary students into the mainstream," Khan said.
Quality education for every child
"In collaboration with Maulana Sami, we will ... provide modern education," KP Education Minister Muhammad Atif Khan told Central Asia Online.
More than 2.3m Pakistani children study in seminaries in part because they are free, he said.
"We cannot ignore the children attending religious schools," Muhammad Khan said. "They are part and parcel of society."
Observers welcome the reform.
"PTI has taken a great step to create equality," Mahmood Ali, a local imam who teaches Islamic studies at Sarhad College in Peshawar, told Central Asia Online. "Every Pakistani child has the right to a quality education."
"Mainstreaming of all types of schools will lead to overall development of the education system," Ansar Abbasi of Islamabad, a senior journalist with The News International, told Central Asia Online. "We need to put in place a forward-looking syllabus and prepare students to contribute to national development."
Alienating the pupils of seminaries will only divide society, Abbasi said.
The budget allocation is meant to provide a system to monitor seminaries' compliance with KP official policy, KP Information Minister Mushtaq Ahmed Ghani told Central Asia Online.
"We are trying to ensure ... a more homogeneous society with equal opportunities for all children," Ghani told Central Asia Online.
Education, health and durable peace
Educational reform means better health care ultimately, KP Director General of Health Services Parvez Kamal Khan told Central Asia Online.
"It will lead to better vaccination in the province," he said. "In the past three years, Taliban militants have killed more than 50 health workers [in Pakistan] for conducting polio vaccinations."
DH has stood up courageously to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) by opening its doors to medical teams, Parvez said.
"Maulana Sami has inaugurated several anti-polio campaigns in his seminary to give the message that vaccinating ... children against polio does not contravene Islam," he said, adding that Maulana Sami's support of vaccinations has thwarted the TTP's anti-immunisation propaganda.
Maulana Sami's stance helped drive down the number of Pakistani households who rejected polio vaccination to 1,500 so far in 2016, compared to 40,000 in 2013, Parvez said.
Maulana Sami told Central Asia Online that the KP government has chosen him to be a focal person for implementing seminary curricular reform.
"We've started work on reforms in co-operation with the government," he said. "It's wrong that some of our students were involved in terrorism."
"We can defeat terrorism with guns," Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah of Peshawar, a former security secretary for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), told Central Asia Online. "But we have to integrate the seminaries into the mainstream to establish a lasting peace."