Madras­sas con­tinue lessons once taught to Tal­iban

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Wil­lis Wit­ter

LA­HORE, Pak­istan — A recita­tion of the Ko­ran’s first chap­ter by 15-year-old stu­dent Muham­mad Asher car­ries a melodic, al­most hyp­notic rhythm, as his voice rises and falls in the cadence of classical Ara­bic.

Muham­mad is a star stu­dent at the Ara­bia Taeem-ul-Qu­ran madrassa in La­hore be­cause in three years, he man­aged to me­morize the en­tire Ko­ran, hun­dreds of pages in an an­cient lan­guage that is rarely spo­ken and that nei­ther he nor nearly 100 fel­low stu- dents can un­der­stand.

Asked whether he could imag­ine him­self at­tend­ing a ji­hadist train­ing camp one day, he replied:

“It is my wish to do that, to de­fend Is­lam by the grace of God.”

Ara­bia Taeem-ul-Qu­ran ad­heres to the Deobandi branch of Is­lam, widely con­sid­ered the more mil­i­tant of two main types of madras­sas in Pak­istan.

Deobandi madras­sas trained the en­tire lead­er­ship of the Tal­iban in a dra­co­nian form of Is­lam that they im­posed on Afghanistan prior to the Septem­ber 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Deobandi madrassa grad­u­ates are thought to pro­vide a pool of po­ten­tial re­cruits for Tal­iban fight­ers, who have taken con­trol of parts of Pak­istan’s North-West Fron­tier prov­ince, from which they also raid Afghanistan.

The Ara­bia Taeem-ul-Qu­ran madrassa con­sists of a mod­est, horse­shoe-shaped build­ing sur­round­ing a gi­ant ex­ca­va­tion crater await­ing con­crete for the foun­da­tion of a $700,000, three-story build­ing. It will re­place the cramped quar­ters where stu­dents spend much of the day sit­ting on thread­bare car­pets mem­o­riz­ing the Ko­ran.

Man­zour Ahmed Makhdoom, the head­mas­ter, said the project is be­ing funded en­tirely with do­na­tions from lo­cal Mus­lims.

A slight man with a high fore­head and untrimmed black beard, he gen- tly fin­gered a string of prayer beads while ex­plain­ing that West­ern views of Is­lam as a vi­o­lent re­li­gion are not cor­rect.

“Is­lam does not per­mit a Mus­lim to kill an­other hu­man be­ing,” he said dur­ing a re­cent visit.

The words took on a dis­so­nant ring dur­ing a sec­ond visit to the madrassa less than two weeks later, when one man ap­proached a West­ern re­porter just as stu­dents were end­ing the evening prayer.

In halt­ing English, he whis­pered, “Arabs [. . . ] kill you.”

Was it a threat? With­out a verb, the con­text was not com­pletely clear. But the ex­change took place amid a chaotic scene nearby, with young stu­dents en­ter­tain­ing a fe­male pho­tog­ra­pher go­ing about her work, her head tightly wrapped in a scarf. Women are usu­ally for­bid­den from en­ter­ing boys’ madras­sas.

Both­in­ci­dentstook­place­weeks­be­fore the Nov. 3 dec­la­ra­tion of emer­gency rule, in which Pak­istani Pres­i­dent Pervez Mushar­raf sus­pended the con­sti­tu­tion, fired most jus­tices on the Supreme Court and vowed to crack down on mil­i­tants based in the na­tion’s re­mote north­west.

Ara­bia Taeem-ul-Qu­ran has re­sisted re­forms or­dered by Gen. Mushar­raf nearly six years ago. It re­fuses to reg­is­ter with au­thor­i­ties and its cur­ricu­lum re­mains un­changed, de­spite gov­ern­ment re­quire­ments that ba­sic sub­jects such as math, science and English be in­cluded.

Stu­dents spend their time be­tween three meals and five daily prayers mem­o­riz­ing the Ko­ran. Noth­ing else is taught, not even ba­sic read­ing skills. Few, if any, stu­dents are from La­hore it­self. Most come from the im­pov­er­ished coun­try­side, where the lure of free room and board of­fers a way out for poor fam­i­lies who can­not feed their chil­dren.

Fu­ture threat

To crit­ics in the U.S., which pro­vides more than $100 mil­lion in aid to Pak­istan each month, the gov­ern­ment has failed to fol­low through on re­forms promised by Gen. Mushar­raf.

Rep. John F. Tier­ney, Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat and chair­man of the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form sub­com­mit­tee on na­tional se­cu­rity, wor­ries that Pak­istan’s madras­sas pose a long-term threat to the U.S.

“Will we be safe over the next five, 10 or 20 years as thou­sands — per­haps mil­lions — more kids learn ji­had at ex­trem­ist madras­sas in­stead of learn­ing real-world skills to be­come pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens in their com­mu­ni­ties?” Mr. Tier­ney asked.

The venue was a May hear­ing, in which he dis­played a pic­ture of Pak­istan’s Red Mosque and stu­dents of an at­tached madrassa burn­ing books, CDs and DVDs.

The fu­ture of the mosque is un­cer­tain given Gen. Mushar­raf’s emer­gency rule, but it was or­dered re- opened by the Supreme Court last month. The court also had or­dered re­build­ing of the ad­ja­cent girls’ madrassa, which was torn down af­ter a July raid by po­lice com­man­dos.

The Red Mosque’s school rep­re­sented the clear­est ex­am­ple of the po­ten­tial threat from un­reg­u­lated madras­sas. For six months, its stu­dents ter­ror­ized the cap­i­tal, Islamabad.

Black-robed girls with sticks and nin­ja­like veils waged a cam­paign to im­pose strict Is­lamic law in the cap­i­tal, kid­nap­ping sus­pected pros­ti­tutes, smash­ing video and CD shops and tak­ing over a li­brary. Its lead­ers — one killed in the raid and the other jailed — had threat­ened to at­tack the cap­i­tal and other tar­gets with waves of sui­cide bombers.

Af­ter the raid, mil­i­tants pri­mar­ily based in the north­west re­tal­i­ated with sui­cide bomb­ings and at­tacks on the army, which gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials say have claimed more than 800 lives.

Theblack-clad­girl­sare­gone.Some say hun­dreds were killed when po­lice stormedthe­com­poundonJu­ly10and re­main buried in a field of dirt and rocks that had cov­ered a two-story base­ment that housed its dor­mi­tory.

Mark Sch­nei­der of the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, who vis­ited the site just days be­fore Gen. Mushar­raf de­clared emer­gency rule, said con­struc­tion ap­peared to have started on the site.

No con­crete had been poured, but Mr. Sch­nei­der de­scribed a shal- low ex­ca­va­tion for a slab­like foun­da­tion that would sit on top of the buried base­ment.

Rad­i­cal re­cruit­ment

Dur­ing vis­its to the Ara­bia Taeemul-Qu­ran madrassa in late Septem­ber and early Oc­to­ber, the school seemed a world apart from the vi­o­lent tur­moil that con­tin­ues to plague Pak­istan.

Muham­mad, the stu­dent who mem­o­rized the Ko­ran, spoke in a soft voice while ex­plain­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence from a life of con­stant prayer and mem­o­riza­tion.

“When I pray and study, I feel a di­rect con­nec­tion with God. It takes away all my fears. I’m only afraid of God,” he said.

He also spoke ab­stractly of ben­e­fits for him­self and oth­ers in the af­ter­life. There was no men­tion of 72 vir­gins promised for mar­tyrs in par­adise nor was the ques­tion asked.

But the head­mas­ter cited one say­ing of the prophet Muham­mad that is recorded in a Ha­dith, a body of Mus­lim scrip­ture sep­a­rate from the Ko­ran: “If a boy mem­o­rizes the Holy Ko­ran, he can take 10 other per­sons with him to heaven and his par­ents will be crowned in heaven and given spe­cial sta­tus,” he said.

Mil­i­tants re­cruit­ing fight­ers from each year’s pool of madrassa grad­u­ates are said to prom­ise much more ex­trav­a­gant oth­er­worldly ben­e­fits for those who die as mar­tyrs — the abil­ity to let gen­er­a­tions of fam­ily mem­bers into par­adise.

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