Pakistan's Terrorist Factory: Fact or Figment?
Islamic schools resent and deny an official claim that they teach militancy to youth
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — AFTER spending two years memorizing every passage in a 600-page Koran, Abdul Samad says he is only a few whiskers away from eternal glory.
The Afghan refugee, a teenage student at the Jami-ul-Quran religious school, is ready to sacrifice his life to help establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in neighboring Afghanistan. But an Islamic student militia, which is fighting for control of Afghanistan under the name Taliban, says he is too young to fight because he does not have a full beard yet.
''I want to go fight,'' he says eagerly, a prayer cap perched on his head. ''It is the will of Allah, for the sake of Islam.''
Mr. Samad is one of more than 200,000 Afghan and Pakistani students enrolled in a burgeoning system of 8,000 religious schools in Pakistan that critics say are little more than poorly disguised terrorist factories. (The Afghani refugee camps are left over from the decade-long Soviet occupation and its aftermath.)
A risky venture
The schools, known as madrasas, are being targeted by the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the West to counter rising Islamic fundamentalism.
Their campaign carries some risk. Instead of using force to crush fundamentalist groups, such as the governments in Algeria and Egypt do, attempts are being made here to control what is being taught at these religious schools and Islamic universities.
Ms. Bhutto and Western diplomats are hoping that the fundamentalist mullahs, or preachers ,who run the schools -- and openly call for the establishment of an Islamic state here -- will fail to gain popular support.
''The Pakistanis need to be careful about how they crack down on this,'' says a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, the capital. ''I think one of the reasons [fundamentalism] has not taken off here is that they can't say they're being persecuted by the infidels.''
If the strategy works, it could be a valuable lesson for governments in other Muslim nations, struggling to counter rising fundamentalism. The strategy would also be a rebuke to Western assumptions that Islamic fundamentalists are inherently violent and can quickly gain popular support from moderate Muslims.
But the killing of two United States consulate workers in Karachi last month, and the arrest of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the alleged World Trade Center bombing ring leader, in Islamabad in February, has fueled suspicions that Pakistan is already a haven for terrorists. Critics warn that if this new approach fails, Pakistan will have allowed the creation of thousands of radical Islamists.
Islamic leaders are already vowing to resist any attempts to regulate what is taught in the madrasas, which have multiplied by more than 50 percent since 1988. ''The government has wrongly taken this decision to defame religion,'' warns Muhammed Yusuf Qureshi, the mullah who runs the 300-student Jamia Ashrafia religious school. ''I predict that very soon there will be a revolution in Pakistan more powerful ... than the one in Iran.''
Visits to three madrasas and two Islamic universities revealed close communities where Afghani students are urged to go fight for a fundamentalist state in their country and Pakistanis are urged to start their own madrasas to spread fundamentalism. Students are usually from poor families and live at the madrasas for two to nine years. They study only the Koran and Islamic texts.
At the Zia-ul-Madiris school, the first thing a visitor hears is the rhythmic sound of young men's voices. In a soothing murmur, more than 150 boys between the ages of 5 and 16 are gently rocking back and forth repeating verses of the Koran. Few children appear to misbehave in the well-kept former office complex.
Smiling young Afghan teachers with large, brightly colored turbans warmly greet visitors. They proudly state that 400 of the school's students have gone on to join the Taliban.
Teachers at all of the madrasas bitterly reject accusations that they are creating terrorists or soldiers in Pakistan's worsening violence. Hundreds of people have been killed in a vicious cycle of Sunni and Shiite Muslim clashes over the last year in Karachi.
''Islam is against violence, and we don't support the use of force,'' says Gul Rehman, the mullah at the Spin Jamaad madrasa. ''But we will do our best to educate the people through these [schools], and the people will then ... favor an Islamic state.''
But Pakistani officials say some religious schools have been linked to sectarian violence. ''There are some schools which create this divide, students are indoctrinated over time against the other sects,'' says Abdur Rauf Chaudhry of the interior ministry. ''There are some reports of handling of weapons training.''
But teachers and students at madrasas and Islamic universities deny they were involved in any military training. At the University of Dawa and Jihad -- Vice Chancellor Mohammed Nazif scoffs at government statements that individuals involved in sectarian violence had confessed that they had received military training at the university.
Several government inspections of the 1,600-student, 15-acre campus located in the center of the sprawling 150,000-person Jalozai refugee camp produced no evidence of military training.
Hayat-ur-Rehman, an Afghan refugee and fourth-year electrical-engineering student, lashes out at the allegations. ''I am at a total loss why this is happening,'' he says. ''Our country has been destroyed, everything we had is gone. I just want to study, but I am labeled a terrorist.''
An exaggerated problem?
Diplomats says it is unlikely that any terrorist-training camps exist in Pakistan, and officials may have exaggerated the problem to cultivate US sympathy prior to Bhutto's April 5 to 14 trip to the US. ''She has no doubt been exploiting them [the fundamentalists] for the benefit of the government,'' says the diplomat. ''Pakistan is not a major link in an international terrorist conspiracy against the [West],'' he continues. ''But the extent to which it is used as a recruiting pool for radical groups is an issue.''
Pakistani officials say they are also concerned about the role of foreign governments in funding the madrasas. They suspect that predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia may be funding Sunni schools and predominantly Shiitte Iran may be funding the Shiite schools. Madrasa officials deny receiving any foreign aid.
''There is not enough money coming from these government charities to even feed the students,'' says the diplomat.
What is encouraging, according to Pakistani and Western officials, is that Pakistan's fundamentalist parties are not gaining support at the polls. Religious parties still hold only nine of 217 seats in the parliament.
But some teachers and students at the madrasas warn they will not wait forever for a majority of Pakistanis to elect a fundamentalist government. Most say that in the end, establishing an Islamic state is more important to them than democracy.
''We want to establish the law of Allah, not democracy,'' says Maulvi Muhammed, a teacher at the pro-Taliban school. ''Because Islamic law is the law of God and democracy is just a man-made system.''