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Pakistan proposes reform, tighter control on madrassas

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The Pakistani government is proposing reform of the nation’s madrassas, which are accused of fostering terrorism.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the seminary library, just a stone’s throw away from the Pakistani parliament, cleric Abdul Aziz speaks with the conviction of one who feels vindicated by history.

In 2007, Aziz and his brother Abdul Rashid led a band of students from the Jamia Hafsa seminary and others in a campaign of moral policing in Pakistan’s capital – which resulted in them being charged with kidnapping, assault and abuse. The standoff with authorities also involved the issuing of several fatwas – religious edicts – against the military campaign targeting armed groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), declaring any soldiers taking part to be “non-Muslim”.

That confrontation led to a military operation, during which the seminary and adjacent Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) were besieged for seven days, involving almost daily clashes between security forces and Aziz and Rashid’s followers, who also launched raids on nearby government buildings.

When the dust settled, more than 60 people had been killed on both sides. Rashid was among the dead and Aziz was arrested while trying to escape the seminary disguised in a burqa.

Today, the cleric has been acquitted of all legal charges against him, including murder, incitement and kidnapping. He has resumed his position as head of the Lal Masjid and a network of 27 seminaries across Punjab province. These provide free education and accommodation to more than 5,000 students, who are given religious instruction alongside courses in non-religious subjects.

Little has changed for Aziz, who was quick to point out to Al Jazeera that the seminary library had recently been inaugurated in “honour” of Osama bin Laden, whom he called a “martyr” and a “hero of Islam”.

“I think that there is no state in Pakistan,” Aziz said. “There is the law of the jungle here. If the law of the jungle can be called a state, then OK, there is a state… What is a state? What responsibilities of the state [is the government] fulfilling? They are here to steal, for corruption, to be cruel to the people. Democracy in this country is a method of stealing.”

Asked whether he would  today condone the Jamia Hafsa students’ acts of kidnapping, arson and moral policing in 2007, his reply was unequivocal: “Absolutely.”

Describing such vigilante policing as “the command of sharia“, Aziz said religious law dictates “that where you see someone violating sharia, you must stop them.

Even at gunpoint?

“If there is no other way… if things are at that ultimate point, then yes, that will also be likely.”

Lack of oversight

The government may have had clerics such as Aziz in mind when its newly formulated National Internal Security Policy (NISP) identified seminaries, or madrassas, as being potential security threats because of their ability to “spread extremism”.

It’s policy document, a copy of which was seen by Al Jazeera, refers to “troublesome aspects of thesemadrassas, which impinge on national internal security, include financing from unidentified sources; publication and distribution of hate material”. While careful to point out that “not all madrassas are a problem,” the report suggests that some have “taken a dangerous turn in cultivating non-tolerant and violent religious attitudes”.

The report states that certain seminaries spread “radicalisation literature” and preach “complete rejection of other beliefs”, while engaging in “sectarian indoctrination”. It also asserts that “a large number of terrorists either are, or have been students of madrassas where they were brainwashed to take up arms against the state”. It calls for an overhaul of the country’s seminary education system, integrating it with the national educational system by “supporting their administration, financial audit and curriculum accreditation”.

More than 22,000 seminaries are registered across Pakistan, accounting for about 200,000 full-time students, or 1.5 million students including those enrolled part-time. These institutions are run by five major seminary boards, known as wifaqs, with little or no oversight by the government.

The NISP’s recommendations have been seconded by Pakistan’s parliament, but questions have been raised over the need for systematic reform, instead of simply using existing law to tackle seminaries known to preach radical ideologies.

“Can the government open such a Pandora’s box of talking about reform in the private and public education sectors as well?” asked Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), who has extensively researched seminaries.

“If some madrassa teachers or students are involved [in terrorism], the law enforcement agencies have records of the madrassas, they know what they are doing, then they can increase the surveillance. And if they found some suspicious activity, then they can enforce the [existing] law.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior police officer said security agencies had identified two radical seminaries supporting armed groups, but action wasn’t taken “due to a lack of aggressive political will”.

“There is ambiguity, I think, even in the internal security document. They built a case about madrassas and security, but when they come to regulations, they suggest just mainstreaming of madrassas and curriculum reform,” said Rana.

‘Coercive environment’

Most seminaries in Pakistan teach the Dars-e-Nizami system, an eight-year course including Arabic, Islamic jurisprudence and the interpretation of the Quran. The system’s curriculum is supplemented with other courses, some with overtly sectarian leanings – unsurprising, given that the wifaqs are largely divided by sect and ideology.

Syed Muhammad Ali, a development anthropologist at Canada’s McGill University, has researched policy reform in the seminary sector. He said the curriculum at such schools mean that pedagogy is “creating a larger coercive environment, which can exacerbate myopic mindsets”.

Ali criticised outside attempts to reform seminaries as being short-sighted, focusing on introducing subjects such as maths and science, but not addressing the pedagogical issues at play. He suggested the only way to tackle those ideological issues is to find alternate forms of Islamic knowledge that place more focus on critical-thinking skills.

“You give some basic math or computer skills, it does nothing to lessen that myopia,” he says. “You have to address that myopia by going into the [Islamic] tradition.”

That “myopia”, and the solidifying of sectarian identities under the wifaqs, can breed sectarian tension. More than 3,600 people have been killed in sectarian violence in Pakistan since 2002 – including 722 deaths last year.

The issue of jihad

Opposition to reform has come not just from the madrassas themselves, but from religious political parties, which contend the government has no business interfering with religious education.

“The government has destroyed all public schools… If you cannot run the government schools, then how can you run the seminaries?” asked Akram Khan Durrani, a senior lawmaker who resigned his cabinet position over the issue, and whose JUI-F party runs a network of seminaries across Pakistan.

“These institutions are running on their own effort, so many scholars are created by them. If there is any discussion to be had, the doors to discussion are open.”

He added the government was bowing to “international pressure” to introduce more oversight.

But the current lack of oversight has security ramifications. According to a police report viewed by Al Jazeera, two seminaries located in Islamabad have been identified as working “for the success of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan operations… and providing support for their operations in Islamabad and Rawalpindi”, as well as providing “jihadi training”.

These seminaries are ready to be used as support bases for potential TTP attacks in the Pakistani capital, in the event of a military operation against the group.

Clerics such as Abdul Aziz, who was briefly part of the TTP’s negotiating team in talks with the government, continue to expand their networks. For him, the issue of madrassa reform comes down to a debate over whether armed jihad – a “religious obligation” that he defends – is taught in these seminaries.

“The government should come in line with the Quran and sunnah. This present-day thought of giving the state the status of God: We cannot do that, and neither will we.”

~  Asad Hashim

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Canadian News

Joint statement from the Greater Toronto Area & Hamilton Mayors and Chairs

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Toronto Mayor John Tory
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Toronto Mayor John Tory take part in a candlelit vigil to honour the victims of a deadly shooting in Toronto on Wednesday July 25, 2018. Ten-year-old Julianna Kozis of Markham, Ont., and 18-year-old Reese Fallon of Toronto were killed in Sunday's shooting attack, and 13 other people were injured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

We are united in fighting COVID-19 – protecting our residents and saving lives.

While the measures we have taken to stop the spread of the virus have made a difference, this virus has still taken far too many lives in our communities and continues to threaten the lives of our residents.

At the same time, there is no denying the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the economy. Jobs have been lost, many businesses have closed or are at risk of closure, and many families are worried about their financial future.

We’ve been hit hard but that’s why it is so important that we keep moving forward and come back as strong as possible.

Today, the GTHA Mayors and Chairs met to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on the region and how our municipalities can work together on the economic restart and recovery.

We know the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area alone is projected to lose 355,000 jobs and 28% of GDP along with $894 million in lost wages and $3.7 billion in revenue losses for businesses. This will be felt right across the GTHA but it also threatens the provincial and national economies.

A strong recovery right here in the GTHA is crucial to healing the economic damage done by COVID-19 and helping the families and businesses all governments have been working to protect throughout this emergency.

Ontario’s economy and Canada’s economy need the GTHA to come back stronger than ever when the restart begins.

We are determined to deliver this recovery and we agreed today that the GTHA municipalities will be working together to successfully and smoothly reopen our vital regional economy when the time comes.

We also discussed how we can in a consistent way achieve significant, necessary financial support from the other governments to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and protect our ability to contribute to the recovery. A strong recovery needs strong cities and regional governments.

We have agreed we will work together to share information about our respective financial positions and explore together measures we can advocate to the other governments which will help to ensure the financial stability of local and regional governments in the GTHA.

Our child care and recreation programs help parents get back to work.

Our emergency services keep people safe.

Our transit systems get people to work and home safely.

Our major infrastructure projects – often built in conjunction with the other governments – will help kick-start the recovery and create countless jobs.

Our economic development activities attract jobs and investment.

We built a strong and vibrant GTHA and we know that we will need to come back even stronger and as quickly as we can in order to keep Canada’s economy going.

With the cooperation and support of the provincial and federal governments, we are ready to rise to this challenge.”

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Canadian News

Four People Charged in Mississauga Pedestrian Fail to Remain Fatality

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Investigators from the Major Collision Bureau have charged four people in Mississauga’s most recent fatal fail to remain collision.

On Thursday, February 15, 2018, at approximately 8:40 p.m., the victim, a 61 year-old female from Mississauga, was struck by a south bound vehicle as she was crossing Mavis Road in the area of Knotty Pine Grove in the City of Mississauga. The vehicle did not remain and the victim, having suffered major injuries, was pronounced dead at the scene.

On Saturday, February 17, 2018 shortly before 7:00 p.m., Satchithanantha VAITHILINGAM, a 60 year-old male from Brampton, and the driver believed to be responsible in this incident, surrendered to police at 22 Division. Satchithanantha VAITHILINGAM has since been charged with Fail to Remain Cause Death.

Hivissa SATCHITHANANTHAN, a 25 year old female from Brampton, Shajeetha SATCHITHANANTHAN a 28 year-old female from Brampton and Gowtham SATKUNARAJAH a 28 year-old male from Brampton have each been charged with Accessory After the Fact in relation to this incident.

Satchithanantha VAITHILINGAM will answer to his charge on March 12, 2018. Hivissa SATCHITHANANTHAN, Shajeetha SATCHITHANANTHAN andGowtham SATKUNARAJAH will answer to their charges on Monday March 26, 2018 at the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton

Anyone who may have witnessed the collision, have dashboard video footage of the incident or who may have any information regarding this incident is asked to contact investigators with the Major Collision Bureau at (905) 453-2121, ext. 3710. Information may also be left anonymously by calling Peel Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477), or by visiting www.peelcrimestoppers.ca or by sending a text message to CRIMES (274637) with the word ‘PEEL’ and then your tip.

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Canadian News

Justin Trudeau in India: Hug missing! Mounting pressure?

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The much publicized and anticipated visit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to India was marred with questions. The questions were centered on the kind of welcome he would be given in the Sikh dominated state of Punjab. Also the famous hug by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was being anticipated. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally made his much-touted visit to India. He landed on the Indira Gandhi Airport, New Delhi only to be received by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat not even a Cabinet Minister in Narendra Modi’s government.

He is presently the second rank Minister of State for Agriculture.  That comes in complete contrast to the warmth that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his NDA government has generally displayed towards the visiting dignitaries.  Only a couple of weeks ago, when the heads of the 10 ASEAN states arrived in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t receive Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the airport, as he has previously done with many leaders including Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t join him is all surprising even when Prime Minister Trudeau visited Gujarat. This is unusual because the Indian Prime Minister has set a trend that he always accompanies head of the state when they visit his home state.

Even Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath did not show up, let alone accompany Prime Minister Trudeau to the Taj. However, during Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 15 January visit to the Taj Mahal at Agra, Yogi Adityanath had received Netanyahu and his wife and shown them around as well as hosted a lunch for them. For first three days, none from the executive or the elected representative held any meeting with the delegation.

Media in India is trying to spread a message that the cold treatment given by Prime Minister could be because two of the four Sikh members of Trudeau’s cabinet – Harjit Sajjan and Amarjeet Sohi – support the Khalistan movement. However, had that been the case his visit to Punjab would have got a similar response.  However, the Punjab Government led by Captain Amarinder Singh rolled out a red carpet during his stay at Amritsar and even the two leaders held some fruitful discussions.

Thus putting an end to those criticisms that that Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit was devoid of any warmth.  Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh, for instance who met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau setting aside his earlier prejudice that he exhibited during the visit of Defence Minister Harjeet Singh Sajjan.

In recent months, Gurudwaras (Sikh temples) in Canada, the United States and Australia have banned Indian officials from visiting gurudwaras and the moment started with Gurudwaras here in Toronto. Could that be the reason for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to not accord one of the warmest welcomes that he is known to provide?  Or the use by Canada’s parliament of the term genocide to describe mass killings of Sikhs in India in 1984 has left the Indian Prime Minister disturbed?  However, more than Prime Minister Modi, this could have left the Congress party in troubled waters, but that was also not the case as Amarinder Singh hails from the same party.

The lukewarm welcome to Prime Minister Trudeau can have its political ramifications too. Will it hamper the significant 2015 deal, in which Canada agreed to supply 3,000 metric tons of Uranium to power India’s atomic reactors?

Somewhere Prime Minister Modi has not taken the issue of non allowing entry of Indian officials to Gurudwaras and the statement on Genocide too lightly. Prime Minister Modi however has failed to understand that Canada cannot curtail the right of freedom of speech and expression of its citizen.

Two nations perhaps failed to resolve the matter before Prime Minister boarded the flight from Canada and not welcoming Prime Minister Trudeau could be a tactical decision to put pressure on him. With Prime Minister Modi preferring to meet him at the far end of the tour has conveyed a lot about the myopic approach of Prime Minister Modi.

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