Abdul Sattar is a wiry young man from Tajikistan who hopes to be an Islamic prayer leader. With 3,000 other male students from a dozen other countries, he is studying in north Pakistan at one of a growing network of Islamic schools, or madrasas, whose main principle is that Islamic law should be the law of the land.
Mr. Sattar's school, named Dar-al-Vloom-al-Haggania, feeds soldiers to the Taliban, a movement that has waged a five-year-long military takeover of Afghanistan. Taliban rule is seen by many Muslims as a model for the future.
As for Mr. Sattar, whose parents were driven from Tajikistan to Afghanistan by the Soviets, and then driven back by anti-Taliban forces, his dream is a matter of time and patience. "I will teach the people in my country religion," he says quietly. "If the Taliban can win in Afghanistan, maybe they can move into [Central Asia]."
Madrasas have spread rapidly in Pakistan. Fifty years ago there was only one. Now more than 7,000 dot the landscape - training as many as 300,000 young people. In Karachi, one madrasa has 8,000 students, some of whom were loaned at age 12 to help the Taliban fight. Two of the three camps hit by US missiles in Afghanistan on Aug. 20 were populated by Pakistanis weaned in madrasas in Pakistan, according to informed sources.
They were part of Harakat-ul Mujahideen (formerly known as Harakat-ul Ansar), a group on the US State Department terrorist list, even though the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan has consistently forbidden and even punished acts of terror it considers un-Islamic. Strictly speaking, a Taliban is a madrasa graduate, not just an ordinary Muslim. About 30 percent of madrasa students come from outside Pakistan, from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, as well as Afghanistan. They come for the tuition-free schooling as early as age 3, which the mullahs smilingly say is of special interest to US officials; the oldest students are in their late 20s. Madrasas recognized role The role of the madrasas in supporting the Taliban, and in providing an Islamic world view for its students, is no secret. The new Taliban lobbyist at the United Nations in New York, Maulvi Abdul Wahab, says openly that madrasas in Pakistan "have been essential" in the war and in restoring law and order to Taliban areas, about three-quarters of Afghanistan and growing.
Contrary to impressions, madrasas don't conduct formal military training. But a martial spirit prevails. Students rise early, pray, and begin study at 6:30 a.m. Most of their 10 hours of class involves Islamic law. The informal atmosphere is spiced by battle-tested students who, while polite and gracious to outsiders, are also hearing a great deal of talk about confrontation with un-Islamic forces from their elders.
The headmaster at Dar-al-Vloom is Moulana Sami ul-Haq. A former member of the Pakistan Senate, Mr. ul-Haq introduced a bill in the mid-1990s that would essentially replace Pakistan's civil law with sharia, Islamic law. Challenge corruption A man with sharp and rugged features set beneath a black patterned turban in the loose Afghan style, ul-Haq expresses good humor but also makes a number of extreme statements that he later withdraws, including a threat or two against the government of the United States. He is ready for a "revolution" of Islamic sentiment in Pakistan and in the region of South Asia, he says.
"Revolution comes from the young blood who challenge the corrupt older politicians," he states in his paneled office inside the madrasa complex. "We tried to change the system from inside our so-called democracy. We have tried to do so for 50 years in this country. There is no planning for an armed struggle here. It will simply erupt in time, as in Iran and Afghanistan."
The madrasa movement meshes well with the fundamentalist vision of the Taliban. Most madrasas come out of the Deobandi movement, a 19th-century Islamic revival that began in an Indian town in the northern Hindu heartland of Uttar Pradesh - today the seedbed of India's newly elected Hindu nationalist government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. A purer Islam Deobandi seeks to purify Islam from worldly ways and means, and return to a literal reading of the Koran. Photographs of animate things like people and animals are not allowed (exceptions were made for this report). Names of students, not photos, adorn the walls of the school. No idol worshipping is permitted, and no monuments are built. Nor is there a role for women outside the home. In June the Taliban shut down more than 100 private schools for girls in Afghanistan that were operating in defiance of a ban against their education. Girls may not be educated past age 10, though ul-Haq says this may change after the revolution.
The distinguishing characteristic of the mingled Taliban-Deobandi education is offered by one religious student: "It is a refusal to make any compromises that is evident in the behavior of a Taliban." This rigid devotional adherence has brought law and order to the anarchy of Afghanistan, say sources here; and it is also behind much of the recent friction with moderate Sunni Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere. Madrasa mullahs say it is a myth that the Taliban are narrow-minded - something they say is, like most negative images of Islam, a product of Western-based propaganda. They proudly point out that, in the warren of straw-matted classrooms, students also receive a "temporal" education consisting of math, science, and geography - though a discussion of the details of that education was not forthcoming. From the moment students enter, they are expected to learn the Koran by heart, and some do so in a year or two, according to the mullahs.
One exception at least to the Taliban rules is the teaching of computer science. The Taliban eschew computers, but several desktop computers were located in a "computer room" near the offices of the teachers. Indeed, the madrasa publishes a bimonthly journal on site with a computer that prints in Urdu, the chief language among Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban movement. The lead articles in the August edition of the journal described the victories of the Taliban, argued against Pakistan signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and discoursed on "the glories of Islam." Tuition free, no government funds Madrasas refuse government funding. Mullah ul-Haq says funding comes from local and foreign sources, though is he not specific on this point. The rise of madrasa students is also due to the fact that so many of the poor want their children to have an education - a truism the mullah interprets as a result of a corrupt political system in Pakistan and elsewhere that does not care about educating the people. Children are encouraged to get their parents' permission to attend a madrasa, though that is not a requirement in Islam, several mullahs stated.
In the days after the US missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan, Pakistani officials have been telling reporters privately that they are aware of a strong extremist Islamic tendency in the country. But they say confidently that, in time, they will quiet the extremists.
Several informed unofficial sources state that Pakistan originally allowed the madrasas to operate freely, partly to show Western states what the future will look like without strong support from the West. One question now is whether that strategy has been overrun.