Are Koran Schools Hotbeds of Terrorism?

Sanaa, Yemen - To most Western minds, madrasahs are breeding grounds for terrorists. But that's only one side of the coin. The syllabus at many Koran schools is far removed from Islamist extremism. For millions of Muslims, these schools are the only hope of an education.

One of the men is wearing a white turban and a mint-green cloak over his tailored dishdasha, the traditional Arab men's robe - pure silk, freshly ironed. When he sits down, the mere fall of its folds betrays that he is a man of pedigree. Sheikh Omar is a sayyid, a descendant of Mohammed. He can trace his family tree back through 14 centuries and 34 learned ancestors to Hussein, the son of Ali, and Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. The other - Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani - is 62 years-old. Attar of roses fills the air when he returns from evening prayer. His students rise, revealing jambiyas - the traditional Yemeni daggers - on their belts. A bodyguard is positioned behind him.

According to Sunni teachings, 43-yearold Sheikh Omar is an aristocrat. But he is also the founder and director of a madrasah in Hadhramaut, a region in eastern Yemen. He teaches Muslims from kindergarten up to university level, in classes divided by gender: 800 of them, hailing from Yemen, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Britain and the United States.

Sheikh al-Zindani too is a celebrity of sorts. The man with the red, henna-dyed beard is one of the most photographed Muslim leaders of our times. He heads the largest Islamic university in Yemen, al-Iman University in the capital city of Sanaa. John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" captured in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, took courses here.

Omar and Zindani span the entire spectrum of Islamic education and religious belief; the gulf between them could scarcely be wider. The former, a sophisticated sheikh from Hadhramaut is an educated man who inducts children into the world of knowledge - as the term is understood in the West as well. The latter, a committed Islamist fought alongside Osama bin Laden to drive the Red Army out of Afghanistan. He would like to see all human life interpreted strictly according to the Koran.

Forty pairs of battered flipflops

A sentry with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder guards the entrance to al-Iman University. It is situated on the northern highway circling Sanaa, in a desolate suburb familiar from other cities in the region - Sidi Mumin on the eastern edge of Casablanca, Isbat al-Nachl in the north of Cairo, the Habib quarter of Istanbul or the impoverished south districts of Tehran. Car repair shops, gravel pits, cement works interspersed with concrete huts hastily built for those who have fled the rural regions. Political Islam flourishes here. Sheik Zindani chose this spot 12 years ago to open his madrasah.

The path to the school leads up a slope and then down into a large pit, where 22 bare cement pavilions have been erected: administrative buildings, a laundry, and living quarters. Outside the door to building number seven are two bricks to keep out the ubiquitous sand. In the foyer behind it are some 40 pairs of battered flipflops, the students' footwear.

Ahmed Omar (25) is berthed in the first dormitory on the right, together with five compatriots from Somalia. A Mogadishu sheikh, himself a student in Sanaa 10 years earlier, sent Omar to al-Iman University. Ahmed Omar has lived here for the past two years, and has already learned onethird of the Koran by heart, including the longest of the 114 suras, al-Bakara, "The Cow." It begins: "Alif lam mim. This book is not to be doubted. It is a guide for the righteous, who have faith in the unseen and are steadfast in prayer; who bestow in charity a part of what We have given them."

It is Ramadan, and no lectures are scheduled at al-Iman University. But like his fellow students from Colombo, Dushanbe and Khartoum, the young Somali has no money to travel home. Not even enough to call his mother in Mogadishu.

Completely immersed in the Koran

The days can be agonizingly long, with only the dormitory for a day room. Sand crunches everywhere: in the beds, in their shoes, even in the cheap bread from the cafeteria. Omar spends his time walking along the dusty path between the campus and highway, completely immersed in the Koran.

The subject pursued by non-Arabic speakers most studiously is called tahfiz - learning the holy scripture by heart. A Muslim who has memorized all 6,236 verses of the Koran earns the right to be called a hafiz. In the homelands of the foreign students - the central Asian republic, Sri Lanka and the lawless steppes of Somalia - this title demands respect.

Ahmed Omar will not become a fullyfledged hafiz. The verses aside, his spoken Arabic is still halting, even after two years of university courses. Yet for students like him, theological training is secondary. While Yemeni nationals study exegesis of the Koran and Islamic jurisprudence for seven years, foreigners complete only a four-year crash course at the university. The aim is to dispatch them to the front lines as quickly as possible, as prayer leaders, men of faith. It's all about dawa, missionary work. And about politics. For Ahmed Omar and the other Somalis, the destination is Ogadan, a Christian part of Ethiopia which is claimed by Muslims in neighboring Somalia.

At his university, Zindani is both a teacher and role model. His air of authority is almost palpable. When he smiles, his students beam. When he scowls, his companions' expressions darken. It's like a whole bank of lights switching on and off. The Americans suspect Zindani of supporting al Qaeda and have demanded that Yemen arrest him. Politically, however, that would be perilous for the government in Sanaa. So head of state, Ali Abdulla Salih, visited Zindani's madrasah before the presidential elections this autumn, reiterating to an audience of thousands that only theologians, not terrorists, were enrolled - a claim at odds with the conclusions of Western secret services. After Saudis and Afghanis, Yemeni prisoners comprise the third-largest contingent among the inmates at Guantanamo Bay. There are historical reasons for this.

Before 1990, the country was divided between a North dominated by tribes and the communist South. Even after unification, the Yemeni Marxists continued their resistance.

Ideological bulwark

In addition to attacking the rebels, the North built dozens of Islamic madrasahs, creating an ideological bulwark against the secular South. The projects were largely funded by Saudi patrons, who had launched similar education drives elsewhere in the early 1990s - in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Nigeria, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Islam that they spread was the purist doctrine that originated with Sunni preacher Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab during the 18th century, and has become the state religion in Saudi Arabia today. His followers, called Wahhabis by outsiders, now generally describe themselves as Salafis. Together with their other Muslim brothers, they form the vanguard of modern Islamic fundamentalism, and increasingly dictate the curricula of private religious seminaries in Morocco, Bangladesh and Yemen. "We are the allies of the government in the jihad against the communists," was how Sheikh Abu al-Hassan al-Mazri described the situation when he was head of Dar al-Hadith, a particularly radical seminary in the desert city of Marib.

Some 5,000 students were soon registered at Sheikh Zindani's al-Iman University, hundreds of them from abroad. Where they came from and exactly where many were heading emerged after September 11, 2001. Under pressure from Washington, the government in Sanaa revised its stance on madrasahs and deported dozens of foreign students - Arabs, Asians, Americans, Europeans and Africans. Others left of their own accord before the Yemeni secret service caught up with them. Not all of them returned home. John Walker Lindh, the convicted Taliban from San Anselmo, California, was picked up by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Even today, Iman graduates are surfacing as "foreign fighters" in Iraq. The battle against communism in Yemen has left a terrible legacy.

Sheikh Zindani denies that his university is part of the Islamic terrorist network, saying that it teaches the superior wisdom of the Koran - and nothing more. Every single discovery in modern science, he maintains, is anticipated in the holy book - from the existence of black holes ("The heavens open and turn into gates") to photosynthesis ("We have brought forth plants of every type, and from them produced green").

Religious indoctrination and the training of jihadists

And then there's the story of the coccyx (the small bone at the base of the spine): "These young men," the sheikh says, pointing to the five students before him, "have proven that the coccyx of all vertebrates is indestructible: it cannot be destroyed by fire or sulfuric acid. The coccyx is the origin of all human life, which is exactly what the Koran says." In light of such insights, how can anyone dare to ask about terrorism? For Zindani, this is an insult. "And these men," he asks, outraged, "should be required to prove that they are not terrorists?"

In just five years the word "madrasah" has become a battle cry in a clash of civilizations. Before 9/11 the term was all but unknown in the West. Today, it stands synonymous for the aggressive elements in Islam, religious indoctrination and the training of jihadists. But in its literal translation, the Arabic word "madrasah" simply means "a school, or place of learning," and for many Muslims the Koran school truly is the only hope of education - as it is in the small town of Tarim in Yemen's Hadhramaut region, where the children are tutored by Sheikh Omar.

"Send a color copy of your passport in advance," instructs the website where the Dar al-Mustafa madrasah advertises its summer courses. More specifically, applicants are asked to submit both the page with the photograph and any pages with visa stamps from three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel. Visitors with Israeli stamps in their passports aren't alone in facing holdups when entering Yemen. Travelers who have been to the Hindu Kush are suspect as well. The Koran schools are required to forward all student data to the police, and the foreign embassies in Sanaa also keep records of any nationals who study at Yemeni madrasahs.

Amin Winter (25) comes from the UK; Hassan Ritter (29) from Germany. Winter has been studying here for the past three years. Ritter, who wears the traditional gown of religious scholars, comes occasionally for a refresher course. The Briton says he is sure that MI6, the British foreign secret service, keeps a file on him. Ritter was warned by one policeman in Dresden: "Work on the basis that the national intelligence service is tracking your movements."

During the nights of Ramadan, Winter and Ritter sit together with dozens of other students in the garden of their seminary, listening to Sheikh Omar's recitations. They are studying in a country that has attracted Muslims for centuries, above all from Java and Sumatra. The Islamization of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, was inspired by Yemeni merchants and their Sufi masters in the Hadhramaut - one reason why moderate forms of the faith have prevailed in Southeast Asia to the present day.

"What do you expect me to tell you about bin Laden?"

The Dar al-Mustafa madrasah lists its courses on its website: jurisprudence, the study of the Sharia, Arabic grammar and the exegesis of the Koran. "What is taught here is the undisputed core of Islamic learning, the Sunni orthodoxy," says Ritter. "By comparison, the politically charged Salafism is a very young movement."

Nevertheless, Western perceptions of Islam today almost completely focus on fundamentalist Muslims. This is primarily due to the most iconic figure of militant Islamism - Osama bin Laden - that the German Ritter is regularly taken aside at immigration in Dubai Airport and asked where he has come from and where he is headed. Bin Laden's father came from a village in the Hadhramaut, emigrating to Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Born in Riyadh, his son Osama was raised in the Wahhabite tradition. He has never returned to the land of his forefathers. "What do you expect me to tell you about bin Laden?" says Winter, shrugging his shoulders. "You know as much about him as I do."

In the end, the response to modern jihadism, to the radicalization of young Muslims, can only come from within Islam itself, from its splendid tradition of scholarship that has been stifled in many countries, Winter says. He has one more year of his course to complete, then wants to return to Edinburgh - as the Imam of a Muslim community. Of a moderate community? He is reluctant to answer in these terms. "Orthodox Islam is intrinsically moderate," he counters. "At any rate, my government would be wise to place their faith in people like us."

Habib Ali Sein al-Jifri, one of the top students at Dar al-Mustafa, could be living proof of this theory. At the height of the Mohammed cartoon controversy in March 2006, he traveled to Copenhagen with other Muslim scholars and met with the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Competition from within

Winter's recommendation fits with the advice given by British diplomat Alexander Evans following his 2005 tour - undertaken on behalf of the British Foreign Office - of madrasahs in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Evans published a report in the U.S. magazine Foreign Affairs, hoping to provide guidelines for Western governments. There are problem madrasahs that teach 'poison,' Evans argues, but most states had the laws needed to proceed against these schools and their radical preachers. Western politicians would do well not to demonize madrasahs per se, he said: "They should encourage modernization but avoid insisting on secularization," as that would be taken as a declaration of war on Muslim education. "Reform of the madrasah system," he concludes, "will ultimately be spurred by competition from within - and the more competition, the better."

In the fourth grade of the Dar al-Mustafa primary school, 18 ten-yearolds are sitting at their desks in the lotus position. There are no chairs. They are wearing children's white dishdashas and small caps. Fans are rotating on the ceiling. The textbook the children have opened is titled The Sciences. Today's subject is biology - but not the biology of the coccyx from which God is said to have created humankind, but the constituents of air. "What is the name of the gas that we need to breathe?" the teacher asks. "Ox - yyyy - gen!!!" the children shout. "Is it healthy to smoke cigarettes?" the teacher asks. "No! It makes us sick!"

According to the school's principal, Hamid - Sheikh Omar's son, the youngest descendant of the prophet in his father's lineage - is one of his best students. At age five he can already recite passages from the Koran. In another five years, he will be initiated into oxygen and the other gases that make up air. Needless to say, Hamid is expected to become an illustrious scholar. And what if he would rather be a physician? "Then he'll be a physician," his father says.