School fight brewing in Pakistan

Religious leaders vowed this weekend to protest government plans to regulate Islamic schools.

As Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf fights to rein in Islamic extremism in his nation's religious schools, outraged educators are fighting back.

After a meeting this weekend between government officials and an alliance of organizations representing most of the country's roughly 8,000 religious schools, the heads of the schools gave the government two weeks to withdraw new regulations or face nationwide demonstrations.

The US views educational reform in Pakistan as crucial to changing anti-Western attitudes and creating a more moderate, terror-free state. It plans to provide nearly $34 million this fiscal year to bolster Pakistan's state school system.

But while state schools may be receptive to Western aid and influence, calls for change among the religious schools, or madrassahs, are being rejected at all levels of the system.

"This is military interference in our homes," says Hamid ul Haq, a professor of religious studies at Dar-ul Uloom Haqqania and an Islamist political activist. "These new government regulations have been coerced by foreign powers. It is part of the US government's idea for a new world order."

In 1997 Mr. ul Haq's father, Haqqania headmaster and key Taliban adviser Sami ul Haq, closed the school down so his students could assist Taliban troops fighting north of Kabul, Afghanistan. The school, which lies in the country's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) between Islamabad and Peshawar, also produced eight Taliban ministers and numerous governors.

The students at the madrassah, the most prestigious in region, still listen to their instructors praise Osama bin Laden. "Osama is an important Islamic politician," says the younger ul Haq. "He says that the US is stealing resources from Saudi Arabia, an Islamic holy land. He is only asking why the West is supporting the Jews over the Arabs in Palestine. He tells the truth."

Like thousands of similar schools, Haqqania is austere, devoid of almost every distraction the modern world has to offer. Yet the rigidity is not without comradeship and political discussion. Adolescent males in skullcaps and pajama-like gowns sit on concrete floors behind wooden benches, discussing the virtues of martyrdom.

Pakistan's religious students, usually from poor families, begin their studies as early as age six. Education is free, usually subsidized by wealthier Islamic states in the Gulf. Nearly one million Pakistani students complete higher-level madrassah studies each year.

Pakistan has been a hotbed of militant Islamic attacks in recent months and officials here have accused many of the country's leading religious schools of being in league with extremists.

"We reject the charge that we are the breeding ground for Islamic militants," says Ul Haq. "Holy warriors come from all walks of life. How else can you explain that in Palestine, where the men dress like Europeans and there are few Islamic seminaries like ours, there are so many suicide bombers?"

Pakistani analysts and Western diplomats say, however, that it is far too early to tell if President Musharraf's moves will succeed – as intended – in dampening the spirit of Islamic militancy in Pakistan's Islamic schools.

"These madrassahs have encouraged militant trends in the region for years, and the government agencies that are now charged by Musharraf with trying to control them are some of the same ones that encouraged them in the past," says Shamim Shahid, Peshawar bureau chief for "The Nation" newspaper. "If Musharraf is sincere, this might work. Otherwise, it will just be a kind of cosmetic move – mostly only words – to appease the West."

Responding to Western charges that schools like Haqqania have spawned holy warriors by the thousands in recent years, Musharraf is barring foreign aid to religious seminaries across the country, has ordered a state-approved curriculum and has asked the institutions to submit new enrollment lists to the government for approval. On June 19, Pakistani Information Minister Nisar Memon said that madrassahs could receive government aid only if they begin providing what he called a "modern education." He said that madrassahs refusing to register themselves with government education boards "will not be allowed to operate."

The Pakistani government says it has no plans to stop the schools from teaching the Koran or other Islamic subjects, but wants, however, to introduce subjects like science, math, English, and Urdu. It remains unclear, however, how the new rules would prevent instructors from imparting ideas that turn students against the West.

A Western diplomat in Islamabad, monitoring Pakistan's reform efforts, which were formally announced in June, says he is concerned that Islamic leaders are already trying to "water down" Musharraf's new rules. "Both the changes and the penalties for not reforming or for teaching militancy may end up being too mild," he says.

The Pakistani government's efforts to rein in Islamic schools would, in effect, bring it into line with many so-called moderate Islamic states including Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, all of which maintain strict controls on religious education as a means of tamping down militancy in their own states.

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