Reforms fail to stick at many madrassas in Pakistan
Second of two parts
LAHORE, Pakistan — The suicide attacks and battles between army and Islamist forces cited by President Pervez Musharraf in his Nov. 3-4 weekend declaration of emergency rule seem a world away from the quiet life in the Islamic seminaries of Lahore.
Known as madrassas, the privately funded schools double as orphanages and free boarding schools for families too poor to feed their children, but they also have a darker side.
They teach a Taliban-style doctrine and graduate tens of thousands of young adults each year, some of whom are eagerly recruited by insurgents for military training as guerrillas and even future suicide missions, say Pakistani lawmakers, academics and analysts.
Many of these analysts bemoan the government’s failure to implement the sweeping reforms of the madrassa system announced by Gen. Musharraf five years ago.
Just a tiny fraction of the madrassas — estimated by some to number nearly 30,000 — have complied with rules requiring registration with the government, an accounting of private donations and an expanded syllabus that adds traditional subjects such as math and science to core religious classes.
The Jamia Naeemia madrassa in Lahore, which was visited by The Washington Times last month when the prospect of emergency rule seemed out of the question, stands out as an exception.
“There are two kinds of madrassas, those who changed their courses after September 11, and those who did not,” said Sarfraz Naeemi, the school’s headmaster.
“There’s no jihad, there’s no terrorism here,” Mr. Naeemi said of the school for 1,350 boys, a whitecolumned three-story complex that surrounds an open courtyard of smooth paved stone.
Unlike seven years ago, its graduates earn accredited bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Arabic and Islamic studies, in contrast to many madrassas where students become well-grounded in anti-Western Taliban theology but are unable to read or write.
But even if the students at Jamia Naeemia are well-educated, one can question whether they are any less militant, anti-Western or anti-American in their outlook.
Lahore, a cosmopolitan city of nearly 8 million people, teems with Western icons such as McDonald’s and Citibank. It has yet to be bloodied in the wave of suicide and terrorist attacks that followed a July raid by police commandos on a radical girls’ madrassa attached to Islamabad’s Red Mosque.
Those attacks have killed an estimated 400 people; another 400 are said to have died in army battles with insurgents in Pakistan’s mountainous northwest.
Still, one can find all types of madrassas here.
Of schools that refuse to register and follow government guidelines, Mr. Naeemi said, “They were preaching jihad before September 11, and they are still preaching jihad.”
Those guidelines were announced by Gen. Musharraf in a Jan. 12, 2002, speech in which he proclaimed a new “jihad against backwardness and illiteracy” — an effort that drew much praise in Pakistan and the West.
His plan required all madrassas to stop accepting money from nonPakistani sources such as wealthy Saudis who adhere to a militant form of Islam that helped inspire and fund the Taliban in past years. It also included a requirement to add four core subjects: math, science, Pakistan studies and English.
“The children in these madrassas need to be brought into the mainstream of life,” Gen. Musharraf said a month later at the White House, with President Bush at his side calling the reforms “visionary.”
It was a logical step, considering that the entire Taliban leadership had been educated in Pakistani madrassas and they were largely ignorant of anything beyond the draconian Islamist doctrine that they imposed on Afghanistan.
This same doctrine provided the rationale for Afghanistan’s receiving Osama bin Laden as an honored guest and attempting to shelter the terrorist leader after the September 11 attacks.
Gen. Musharraf again pledged a crackdown on madrassas after the July 2005 suicide attacks in London’s transit system, in which 52 persons and four bombers died. One of the four bombers, a 22-year-old Briton of Pakistani descent, had studied religion at a madrassa in Pakistan.
Gen. Musharraf subsequently said he had expelled more than 1,000 foreign students and promised to refocus on the reforms that he had announced more than three years earlier.
The modern world
A steel gate and high wall separates Jamia Naeemia from the din of Lahore’s exhaust-choked streets. It boasts a library that would rival in size that in many American high schools. One difference is that the books are on glass-covered shelves, offering protection in a dusty part of the world.
A computer lab funded by the Lahore Lions Club and a local charity affiliated with the school contains dozens of desktop computers with familiar names such as Compaq and Philips.
Mr. Naeemi, whose gray beard and dark-rimmed glasses do little to mask a biting contempt for both Muslim terrorists and U.S. policy toward the Islamic world, is satisfied that his students have many options when graduating.
The bachelor’s degree awarded after eight years of study beyond what would be considered middle school in the United States gives graduates the option of becoming preachers or schoolteachers.
With a college degree, they are also welcome in the Pakistani army. The computer lab provides a gateway for those who choose to pursue careers in information technology and related fields. Graduates also have the option of earning a master’s degree after two more years of study.
But being a highly educated Muslim theologian does not necessarily lead to a pro-Western outlook, nor does it appear to make much of a dent in the widespread belief — espoused by the Taliban and al Qaeda — that Islam is under attack by the United States.
Mr. Naeemi’s sarcasm is unmistakable when the subject of Osama bin Laden comes up.
“When the war was against Russia, Osama was a U.S. ally, and now he is a terrorist,” he said. “The U.S. will use people and then throw them away like toilet paper.”
He doesn’t harbor much sympathy for bin Laden, either.
“If one said there are two evils in the world, one would be [President] Bush and the other Osama. They should go out into the Indian Ocean together, have their fight and kill each other.”
A murky world
No one seems to know how many madrassas operate in Pakistan. Estimates range from about 12,000 to close to 30,000. Estimates are just as varied for the size of the student population, ranging from 600,000 to nearly 2 million.
Religious Affairs Minister Ejaz ulHaq, whose agency oversees madrassa reform, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Of two main types of madrassas, Deobandi and Ahle Sunnat, Mr. Naeemi’s school belongs to the latter. In addition to his duties at Jamia Naeemia, he also leads a loose coalition of more than 10,000 madrassas in an organization called Tanzeemul-Madaris Ahle Sunnat, whose members find it easier to operate within government guidelines than the rival Deobandi schools do.
Madrassas are funded entirely by private donors, ranging from wealthy Saudis to poor Pakistanis who chip in pennies to accommodate the zakat — an Islamic tradition requiring Muslims to give 2.5 percent of their wealth to charity.
Room and board is free. Discipline is strict, with students required to say five daily prayers beginning before dawn and ending after sunset — perhaps two hours each day kneeling and bowing toward Mecca.
There is no contact with women, 600 of whom attend a separate female madrassa associated with Jamia Naeemia.
Last month, the school was largely empty as most students had gone home to their families during the holy month of Ramadan, leaving the library and computer lab empty.
The few students remaining had no families to visit, highlighting another role for madrassas. They serve as orphanages that if closed down would leave thousands of children homeless.
Still, Gen. Musharraf’s critics fault his government for failing to implement his education reforms. They say few madrassas have complied fully with the 2002 law, leaving many as de facto prep schools for future terrorists.
Moreover, the president is criticized for failing to build a publicschool system that would provide alternatives to madrassas and help raise the nation’s abysmally low literacy rate, thought by some to be as low as 30 percent.
The United Nations estimates that fewer than half the children of elementary-school age attend school and, of those who do, half will drop out before completing their primary education.
Back burner issue
Among the harshest critics of the madrassas is opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who often accuses the Islamic seminaries of “brainwashing our children” and of producing “mindless robots” of intolerance.
Given the recent turmoil in Pakistan, including a suicide attack on Mrs. Bhutto’s motorcade last month that killed at least 140 supporters, madrassas and the broader goal of education reform are likely to remain on the back burner.
When Gen. Musharraf appeared on state-run television Nov. 3 to explain his emergency declaration, madrassas were not mentioned once.
In a report issued more than a month before the latest outbreak of violence in July, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said the madrassa-reform effort was in “shambles.”
“Plans are announced with much fanfare and then abandoned,” the report said. “In any case, the introduction of secular courses would only be of slight value unless there were also deep changes in the religious curriculum to end the promotion of violent sectarianism and jihad.”
At the Jamia Naeemia madrassa, Muhammad Allahyar, 22, expects to complete his bachelor’s degree sometime next year. He said that he once dreamed of studying in the West, but that his ambitions have changed and now he wants to remain in the Islamic world.
“I want to serve my religion. I want to preach Islam. By the grace of God, it will happen over time,” he said.
When an American visitor posed a question about bin Laden, he felt compelled to defend the terrorist mastermind.
“Osama is a Muslim, and whatever he is doing is in the interest of Islam.”
Students studied the Koran and bonded with younger children recently at the Jamia Naeemia madrassa in Lahore, Pakistan, which has added math and science to the curriculum.