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Pakistan religious schools get scrutiny

The madrasas, schools that teach the Koran and little else, are suspected of nurturing extremism. Under U.S. pressure, the Pakistan government has pledged to reform the system.

May 30, 2009|Mark Magnier

AKORA KHATTAK, PAKISTAN — The Darul Uloom Haqqania campus is a sprawling labyrinth of ashen buildings where young men in black beards and white skullcaps spend their days and nights on hard concrete floors learning all 77,701 words of the Koran. Some people call it the University of Jihad.

The fact that some of Haqqania's graduates go on to become Taliban fighters and suicide bombers isn't the school's concern, said Syed Yousef Shah, the head of the 3,000- student madrasa, or Islamic seminary.

"One person may become a journalist, another a driver," he said as he reclined on a pillow in a small meeting room in the school. "We can't control what people do afterward."

Yes, the madrasa gave the one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar an honorary doctorate. And why shouldn't it? "We did it because he's smart, upright and has many distinguishing qualities," Shah said.

Under heavy pressure from the U.S., President Asif Ali Zardari pledged recently to reform the madrasa system, in a campaign against militancy that has included a Pakistani army offensive in the Swat Valley.

Most Pakistanis had not been too concerned about the burgeoning influence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the frontier and tribal areas. But as militants have moved closer to the capital since a controversial deal in the Swat Valley allowed the imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law, the public has become increasingly wary of extremism. That could strengthen domestic pressure to reform madrasas, some analysts say.

Shah isn't worried; he's heard it before. He rattles off a string of past national leaders, including Gen. Pervez Musharraf, assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

"They all said they would change us," he said, wearing a gold watch and juggling two cellphones. "We are too strong, and it will never happen. This is just talk for the Americans."

Experts tend to agree. The madrasa curriculum and routine -- studying the Koran and other religious texts to the exclusion of much else, with a strong focus on rote memorization and strict obedience -- has resisted change for centuries.

The vast majority of Pakistan's estimated 20,000 or so Islamic seminaries are benign. Several hundred, however, teach extreme forms of Islam that experts say provide a training ground for militancy and jihad, or holy war. Haqqania, 30 miles east of Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province, is on that list.

In 1997, a telephone call from Mullah Omar asking for help sent several hundred of its students traveling through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan to help Omar's Taliban forces capture the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Reports that the entire school closed in support of the struggle were inaccurate, Shah said. "Smaller madrasas with 20 or 40 students closed," he said. "But with 3,000 students to look after, we couldn't shut down completely."

Rubina Saigol, an education specialist and human rights activist who did her doctoral thesis on Pakistan's textbooks, said extremism in the madrasa system is a concern. But the broader problem, she said, is that the system has the tacit support of the Pakistani military, which has viewed young extremists as potential recruits for its proxy war against India over Kashmir.

Until the military decides that the madrasas are no longer useful, she said, meaningful reform is unlikely.

"They've viewed these people as a parallel army," she said.

Although madrasas have had a role in churning out extremists, some experts said it's important not to give them too much credit for the discontent, militancy and anti-Americanism seen in Pakistan.

In fact, the roots of displeasure go far deeper, and are frequently closely tied to Pakistan's government, which is often corrupt and fails to provide security or basic services in the border region, creating a vacuum.

Furthermore, less than 2% of enrolled Pakistani students attend madrasas, most of which are not in the ultra- extreme camp. "The madrasas are a symptom, not the cause," said C. Christine Fair, an analyst with the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. think tank.

Economics as much as fanaticism can be a factor in a family's decision to enroll their children. Most madrasas offer free room, board and clothing, attractive for large, impoverished families.

Saeed Ahmed, 29, said he realized how narrow his education was only after he left.

"My father worked at a madrasa and believed all you needed to know was the Koran," Ahmed said, dressed in a shalwar kameez and skullcap. "And we didn't have much money. Later, when he saw me struggle to start a company without math, basic business vocabulary, computer skills, he admitted he'd made a mistake."

Ahmed now helps finance a broader education for his four younger brothers who return the favor by assisting him in managing his liquefied natural gas company.

Shah, taking a pinch of snuff from a plastic bag, denied that the rigid curriculum of his madrasa fails to prepare graduates for the real world.

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