Pakistan, US take on the madrassahs

Are the US and its allies taking down terrorists as fast as Pakistan's madrassahs are pumping out new ones?

So far, the answer to the US defense secretary's famous question is, probably not.

As Islamabad touts dozens of Al Qaeda arrests made in recent weeks, 1.5 to 1.8 million boys are attending Islamic seminaries. Many schools are seen as nurseries for radical Islam, with some 10 percent having links to militant groups, Pakistan officials estimate.

Recent reforms haven't touched places like Gujar Khan, a town 35 miles from Islamabad, where boys sit on the floor of a small madrassah. They sway as they recite the Koran under the glare of their teacher, Qari Zahir Shah, who swings a tree branch in the direction of any pupil who errs.

"These are parrots of heaven," says the young cleric at the Jama Masjid Khulfa-e-Rashadeen school. "We teach our students purely Islamic teachings to make them pure and ideal Muslims who will not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Islam."

Despite resistance from clerics and the sheer scale of the task - there are some 20,000 madrassahs in Pakistan - the government, with US help, has embarked on several initiatives to combat zealotry by broadening educa- tional offerings. A little over 300 madrassahs have introduced elementary subjects like English, math, science, and computers, and US funds have revitalized some government schools.

"It is a difficult task, but we are very optimistic as changes have started happening," says Pakistan's education minister, Zubaida Jalal. "The message is that we are not touching religious education, but your child needs to be educated in modern subjects to see the other side of the world as well."

The reforms include:

• A five-year, $1 billion plan introduced in 2003 aimed at putting secular subjects on syllabuses and bringing madrassahs under the purview of the Education Ministry.

• A $100 million commitment to rehabilitate public schools signed in 2002 by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

• A 2002 law requiring madrassahs to audit their funding and foreign students to register with the government. The number of foreign religious students has since dropped from thousands to hundreds as the government issued and renewed fewer visas to religious students.

Ms. Jalal says that the five madrassah education boards made up of senior clerics have agreed to the mainstreaming plans, though the program is being rolled out slowly as a pilot project in 320 schools.

US support for reform

The US is helping bankroll the government's madrassah reforms behind the scenes, while providing visible support to Pakistan's public schools through USAID.

The group aims to train 45,000 schoolteachers to improve literacy. They have already opened 200 literacy centers through partnerships with the private sector. And they have rehabilitated 256 schools out of a goal of 1,200 in the underdeveloped provinces of Sindh and Balochistan.

"We are trying to help provide a better, viable alternative to the public by training teachers and improving the educational system so that poor parents do not have to send their children to madrassahs," says Sarah Wright, senior education officer at USAID.

Many religious leaders and clerics are bitterly opposed to the government plans.

"When they cannot run their own educational institutions properly then how can they run madrassahs?" asks the secretary-general of the Wafaq-ul Madaris, the largest education board charged with overseeing 8,000 madrassahs. The board represents the Deoband school of thought, an ideological offshoot of Wahhabism.

Some liberal progressives also oppose the reforms by invoking the public school system. They argue that by reforming and funding madrassahs, the government in effect extends to them legitimacy, and strengthens them as a parallel system.

"Why should we promote a system that uses religion exclusively as a framework? They have played a negative role, and their influence needs to be minimized, not institutionalized," says Najeeb Anjum, an educator and a retired navy commander.

Mudassir Rizvi, a political analyst who has worked extensively on madrassahs, also takes a dim view of the government's cautious approach to reforming the seminaries.

"The introduction of only elementary subjects in madrassahs cannot make them models. Now, terrorists speak English fluently and can use [the] computer very well," says Mr. Rizvi. "The main issue is to remove sectarian tinges and extremist views from the syllabi of madrassahs and to hold clerics accountable for the massive funding they use to run madrassahs. Unfortunately the key issue has remained on backburner due to the pressure of the clergy."

Roots of a parallel system

There were only 137 madrassahs in 1947 when Pakistan came into being after the partition of the Indian subcontinent. The madrassahs flourished in the late 1970s and 1980s during the rule of the late former military dictator, Zia-ul Haq, who patronized the clerics at a time when Pakistan became the front-line of an international fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Land was given to madrassahs and chunks of foreign money poured in from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Gulf states, and Iran.

Thousands of students at madrassahs were trained, recruited along with foreign Islamic militants, to wage jihad along with Afghan mujahideen factions against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban movement in Afghanistan was directly formed by madrassah students.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the institution of the madrassahs turned into the political constituency of Pakistani mullahs, a platform which fosters extremism and sectarianism and is seen as a supply line for jihadist groups.

"They are the biggest charity system in Pakistan providing free meals, board, and lodging to the kids from poor families in the absence of quality educational system. So their world cannot change overnight," says educator and analyst, Tauseef Ahmed.

"If people have the alternative to send their kids to get good and free education in government schools, then half of madrassah students will start going to schools," says Mr. Tauseef.

Interior Ministry officials estimate that around ten percent of madrassahs may have links with sectarian militancy or international terrorism.

"Most madrassahs do not impart military training or education but they brainwash the students and that is more dangerous. The habits can be changed but not the souls. The fairytales of these students come from the battlefield. Thus characters like Osama and Mullah Omar are their heroes," says Tauseef.

What parents want

In Gujar Khan alone around 50 madrassahs are functional compared with less than 10 government educational institutions. Khwaja Qaisar enrolled his 13-year-old son in Jama Masjid Khulfa-e-Rashideen, a mosque cum madrassah, to memorize the Koran some three years ago. Mr. Qaisar, a former cabdriver in New York, was deported from America in 2002 after strict immigration laws were introduced to check terrorism. His two other sons go to a private school.

"I thought to send my son to [a] madrassah so the sins of my seven generations [can] be washed away and they can be blessed with heaven," he says, referring to the traditional belief that if someone memorizes the Koran, it ensures him and seven generations of his forebears a place in heaven. "I am educated and want him to be a pilot or an engineer after he completes madrassah education."

But the 13-year-old son, Mehr Ali, replies sharply: "I want to be a commando so I can kill all the infidels." His teacher, Qari Zahir Shah, nods in approval.

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