Musharraf vs. the mullahs: a fight for Islamic schools

A Pakistani crackdown on madrassahs may change the way students learn

Upon his father's cue, Abdul Wahid Zarif closes his eyes and begins to chant a verse from the Koran, rocking back and forth in sync with his slow, mournful trills. At 12, he has learned to memorize great portions of the Koran in Arabic - a language he does not understand.

"Right now he doesn't know what it means, but when he is a man of age, he will understand it," says Khatib Mohammed Zarif, Abdul Wahid's father and the mullah and schoolmaster of one of this city's largest mosques.

As in most madrassahs, or Islamic religious schools, rote memorization is the key method of learning the Koran under Zarif's tutelage, and virtually no other subjects are tackled.

This is Islamic scholarship as it should be, argues Zarif, who supports the Taliban and dislikes the government he fears may arrest him - as it has about 2,000 suspected Islamic activists and militants, in the past two weeks.

"The government should not interfere with the madrassahs because the government does not understand the first thing about it," says Zarif, a white-bearded man who sits on the floor of his study while Abdul Wahid and an older son return religious books, waterlogged and warped by a recent flood, to their shelves. "Pinpointing the weaknesses of madrassahs so publicly is not right."

But Pakistan's government says such sparse curricula are at the heart of what has gone wrong in many of the nation's 7,000 madrassahs. More important, Pakistan's leader says, the country's madrassahs have been used to spread fundamentalist ideas, stir up antigovernment sentiment, and send dogma-infused young men off to wage holy war in Afghanistan and Kashmir - or to join up with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.

No longer, says Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, warning that many madrassahs are due for a major overhaul. For starters, he says, they must rewrite their curricula by March to make sure children learn to do more than recite the Koran. They will face government regulation like any other school, and those found propagating hatred - a minority, he maintains - will be shut down.

"These few impart only religious education and such education produces semi-literate religious scholars. This is a weakness," Musharraf told the nation in a landmark Jan. 12 speech. "I know that some of these promote negative thinking and propagate hatred and violence instead of inculcating tolerance, patience, and fraternity.

"If any madrassah is found indulging in extremism, subversion, militant activity or possessing any types of weapons, it will be closed," he added. "All [schools] will have to adopt the new syllabi by the end of this year."

But Zarif and other mullahs here and in the neighboring capital of Islamabad say they will not go quietly. He says that just as Musharraf made a mistake by turning against the Taliban, the president's attempts to bring the madrassahs under government control are doomed to failure.

"We will not allow it, and God willing, Musharraf will not succeed in making this a secular state," says Zarif. "Pakistan is an Islamic republic. Its atmosphere should be Islamic. The culture of everything has to be Islamic. We are Muslims, and Islam teaches us we should enter the religion completely, not half-heartedly."

In fact, the Pakistani government itself once supported these madrassahs wholeheartedly, even encouraging them to send some of their graduates to fight alongside the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Funding came in from Islamic governments such as Saudi Arabia - which built what claims to be the world's largest mosque in Islamabad - as well as private donors. It has become common for poor families to send at least one son to study in a madrassah with an eye to becoming a mullah or alim, meaning scholar. A main attraction: room, board, and tuition are free.

These days, however, the number of madrassah students has jumped, and the room and board they get are borderline. At madrassah Ashrafa Allum, a roadside school between Rawalpindi and Islamabad, some 80 boys had been left without their headmaster, Mullah Insail, after he was arrested before their eyes one night last week.

He was accused of belonging to one of the banned Islamic militant groups responsible for committing violence in the name of Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan.

A 17-year-old boy has taken it upon himself to run the school. "We're living on the bare minimum," says Shafqat Hayat Abassi, who oversees boys living 20 to a cement-floored room covered in straw mats. "At least one person in each family should study Islam thoroughly, so my family sent me here."

Having studied nothing else, he is not sure what he can do next, other than teach others to memorize Koran. At another madrassah in Islamabad, a sweet-faced 10-year-old boy, who has already learned 12 sections of the Koran, says he has other hopes for what he'll do when he grows up. "I'm studying to be a scholar," says Mohammed Schwaib, "but I would prefer to go to fight jihad."

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