With coaxing, Pakistan's religious schools shed militancy

Faisalabad, Pakistan – Young Osama rises from his knees to stand before his classmates and teachers. Wearing a faded, thin shirt-dress and white skullcap, he closes his eyes and begins to sing verses from the Quran, a book he is memorizing in a language he does not understand.

For the next two years, this will be Osama Abdul Rahman Azad's schoolwork at the Jamia Salfia madrassa.Almost since Osama was born 11 years ago, the government of Pakistan has tried to root out extremism and bring a modern syllabus into the medieval religious schools known as madrassas. Government decrees, supervisory boards, presidential speeches and offers of money failed to sway the madrassa leadership.

Dialogue and respect are finally bringing change. In the past year, nearly 15,000 madrassas have pledged not to teach or promote militancy or religious hatred. The mainstream madrassas, including young Osama's Jamia Salfia, are starting to teach math, science, social studies and even English.

A radical fringe – spawned in the 1980s by U.S., Pakistani and Saudi intelligence agents to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – is still training and arming Taliban fighters allied with al-Qaeda. They are warring against the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Both government and private sponsors of the dialogue that has coaxed reform within the mainstream of Pakistani religious education are hoping the madrassa leadership will now stand up to the radicals and join the battle for the minds of their students.

"They are ready to give their lives, and they have nothing to lose," said Lahore Muslim scholar Abdul Khadeer Khamosh. "They were brainwashed, so we have to help train them and change their minds."

In the past year, 14,656 madrassas have registered voluntarily with the Ministry of Religious Affairs. These schools educate about 1.6 million boys and girls, about 8 percent of Pakistan's schoolchildren, said Vakil Ahmad Khan, secretary of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Rebellion, killings

The reform campaign suffered a major setback last summer, when the largest madrassa for girls joined a rebellion against the government in the heart of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

With the government claiming that their school was built illegally on property reserved for a national library, Jamia Hafsastudents kidnapped women working in an Islamabad massage parlor and denounced them as prostitutes.

The school, with 4,000 students, was attached to a radical mosque known as the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque. The two brothers who ran the mosque issued death warrants against the editorial staff of a fashion magazine for printing an Adam and Eve advertisement. They said they were establishing a court to try morals cases in the capital.

The headmistress of Jamia Hafsa boasted of training suicide bombers. Many of her students stood cloaked head to foot in black on the madrassa's roof waving rifles and chanting, "Jihad, al jihad."

More than 110 students, soldiers, mullahs, teachers and bystanders were killed at the school and mosque in a catastrophic July showdown with the Pakistani army. In the frontier areas with Afghanistan, where most of the girls were raised, many people believe the death toll was ten times higher.

The battle at the Red Mosque started a war between religious extremists and the Pakistani government.

"The madrassa leaders who supported the government of Pakistan lost their credibility," said Mr. Khan of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

In talking about their schools, madrassa leaders found it hard to admit that religious schools play any role in the violence spreading across Afghanistan and Pakistan. They blamed government intrigue for turning religious instruction into political extremism, and they said it was the responsibility of the government – rather than Pakistan's religious leaders – to deal with the few radical madrassas.

The government dealt with the Jamia Hafsa by tearing it down. The site today is a vacant dirt lot. The Red Mosque is now pale yellow. Neighbors tried to restore the red color, so the government painted it yellow a second time.

At a recent series of workshops on madrassa education sponsored by the Washington-based International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, some Pakistani religious scholars came away saying it was their job to persuade radical madrassas that intolerance has no place in the classroom.

More than 1,300 Pakistani madrassa teachers have attended workshops sponsored by the center, including some from hotspot schools along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Lahore scholar Abdul Khader Khamosh, who chairs a private dialogue group called the Muslim Christian Federation International, has worked with the center for the last two years.

"These madrassas are really producing alarming material, not only for you but for us," he said. "It is our common cause to eradicate this thinking."

Mr. Khan said dialogue like the sort pursued by the center is responsible for the tentative reforms that madrassas are finally taking.

"They are saying, 'Empower us. Recognize us. And then we can act on these concerns,' " he said.

Western influences

Madrassa seminaries have educated the religious leaders and scholars of Islam for nearly a thousand years. When they began, they were also the learning platform for a worldly education among Muslims.

They were a model for the European university. Madrassas in Muslim Spain nurtured ideas and texts that later flowered in Christian Europe as the Renaissance, said workshop leaders with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.

"If they will only adopt a thousand-year-old curriculum, they'll be modern," said Azhar Hussein, who heads the center's madrassa project.

Mr. Khamosh has helped organize the center's workshops for the last two years.

"Throughout history, the madrassa's role has been quite liberal and progressive," he said. "Most of what madrassas are accused of doing by the West refers to the artificial madrassas established by the U.S. and Pakistani governments."

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, madrassas in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan's Baluchistan and North-West Frontier provinces became seedbeds for radicalism. The Pakistani, U.S. and Saudi governments used them to recruit young men to fight the Russians. Textbooks urging jihad against the infidel were published with $51 million in U.S. taxpayer funds and distributed at the refugee camp schools. Some are still used, only now to teach hatred of the U.S.

Rise of Taliban, al-Qaeda

Several years after the Soviets abandoned Afghanistan, the radical madrassas gave rise to student militants who called themselves Taliban. In the name of law and order, these students brought a vicious fundamentalism to Afghanistan and offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

A similar sequence has now unfolded in Pakistan itself. Pakistani madrassas preaching jihad have taught thousands of Pakistani Taliban to fight the government and army. And al-Qaeda's remaining leaders are thought to be hiding among them.

The last two Pakistani governments say they tried to keep that from happening. In 1998, a government policy paper recommended that madrassa students receive a "worldly" education of math, reading and science, validated with government-administered exams, in addition to their religious studies.

The boards of the five big religious school sects of Pakistan rejected government interference in their work, and "no practical steps were taken" to implement the reforms, said Mr. Khan.

In August of 2001, Pakistan's military leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, created a new board over all madrassas to enforce curriculum, graduation exams and degrees. That effort failed as well. After Sept. 11, 2001, however, Pakistan found itself under pressure from the U.S. to stamp out religious extremism. Gen. Musharraf went on television to again promise reforms.

And still nothing happened. Receiving no government funds, most madrassas ignored government pleas to register. They denounced Western pressures to submit to government regulation.

"The West has initiated his inroad against these glorious institutions," begins a recent fund-raising missive from the leadership of the Darul-Uloom Al-Islamia madrassa in Lahore. "The crusade must be hampered by the theological powers to save these seminaries of the Holy Quran."

Darul-Uloom is a proudly fundamentalist madrassa of the Deobandi sect of Sunni Muslims. The boys who study at the school begin their education by memorizing the Quran, but go on to learn Arabic, English, math and science. They play cricket in the courtyard and read about Christianity, Buddhism and other faiths in comparative religion classes.

"Memorization is a start, but education does not end there," said Ahmad Mian Thanvi, the madrassa's 60-year-old headmaster. "A real education is a vast ocean. It takes a whole lifetime and more, so you cannot become a good Muslim by memorizing the Holy Quran alone."

Mr. Thanvi, who wears a brimless, peaked white hat and a long white beard, said extremist leaders like Osama bin Laden or the mullahs leading the Taliban against the Pakistani government would never be allowed to preach on his campus.

He blamed the refugee camp madrassas established with U.S. help in the 1980s for the rebels fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"When you establish institutions with political motives, and after fulfilling your motives, you abandon them, you have established a nursery for trouble," he said.

Madrassas in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and other areas along the border with Afghanistan continue to operate beyond the reach of the government, and some are still turning out militants.

Even at mainstream madrassas, however, feelings against the U.S. are often strong, and changes to bring the teachings into a more modern age are not always welcome.

At the Jamia al-Muntazar in Lahore, the largest Shiite madrassa in Pakistan, a dozen male students sit in a grass courtyard listening to their professor discuss the limits under Islamic law of women's fashion and makeup. One day these men will be mosque leaders with congregations that might have questions about the topic.

"There is nothing in the curriculum, there is nothing in our books that is against America," said Mulana Afzal Hadri, a professor at the school and general secretary of the Shiite madrassa board for Pakistan. But Mr. Hadri said he often criticizes the U.S. in his Friday sermons – for cause rather than bias.

In the madrassa's library, you can almost hear the parchment fray among the 50,000 musty books. There are works on Buddhism. There's an English Bible. And there are computers where students can do research.

But, like most of the rest of Pakistan's madrassas, this is still a deeply conservative institution.

"What we teach is the true path," said Niaz Hussain Naqvi, deputy principal of the school.