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Westerners in madrassahs

Foreigners in Islamic schools are pressured to leave, but they may be a moderating influence.

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Mr. Rahman's decision to study here makes perfect sense in his worldview. "If somebody wants to study engineering, they go to the West. We have come to these centers where the standard of Islamic education is higher," he explains in British-accented English.

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Madrassahs are widely criticized for providing what is considered a paltry modern education. Like many madrassahs, Rahman's does in fact provide several years of English, science, social studies, and mathematics. But many within the system point out that, in the hundreds of years that madrassahs have existed, modern education has never been the point.

"Material seeking and getting a job are not our purpose," says Mulana Saif-ullah Raddani, editor of the madrassah's weekly newspaper. "The only purpose of our education is to understand God's commandments."

He adds that his own son is studying at the madrassah while pursuing a BA degree in computers at a private college. Some of the foreign students have come to Pakistan to gain a similar mix of madrassah and modern learning, sent by their parents to learn Islamic teachings before returning to schools in the West.

There are those who do not welcome the presence of foreign students, finding it suspicious at best and potentially dangerous at worst.

"This is a most dangerous kind of person," contends S.H.M. Jafri, a professor of Islamic studies at the Aga Khan University in Karachi. "Madrassahs give specialization in a certain type of Islam" which adds to sectarianism, he says.

Mr. Jafri finds the decision to study at madrassahs questionable given the option of studying at universities in the West. "They could have gone to a department of Islamic studies at a university in America, or at the American University in Cairo. Why have they chosen a madrassah?" he says.

Rahman believes the answer lies in taking the best from both worlds. "We take the good that the West has to offer, and then we come here and take away from this country the good, and leave with a better frame of mind," he explains.

Rahman and others say there is no over-riding conflict between their religious values and the values of the societies to which they will return.

"I don't disagree with the system. I disagree with the people who abuse the system," Baksh says. "I have a negative opinion of drug lords and pimp lords."

But there are limits to how, as Muslims, they can enjoy the social freedoms of Canada and England.

"If you call open-mindedness the freedom to do what you want freely, to sleep around wherever you want - Islam does not allow that. There is a limit to everyone's freedom," Saeed-ur-Rahman says, adding, "I think anyone can live anywhere in the world and mix with anyone in the world if he's a good citizen, and that's what Islam teaches you, to be loyal to your country, to your community."

Rashad Bukhari contributed reporting for this article.