Re­forms fail to stick at many madras­sas in Pak­istan

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Wil­lis Wit­ter

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.

Mushar­raf’s guide­lines

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.”

Katie Falkenberg / The Wash­ing­ton Times

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.

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