Jihad remains key subject in Pakistan's religious schools

Religious schools in parts Pakistan's poverty-hit southwest remain fountainheads of militancy, despite reforms initiated by President Pervez Musharraf two years ago to regulate seminaries.

About 3,000 Islamic schools, or madrassas, operate in Baluchistan province, most run by the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), a key player in the countrys politically powerful Muttahida Majlis Amal religious alliance.

And with JUI, like the Taliban, comprised of fundamentalist and conservative Sunni Muslims, there are concerns that the madrassas are becoming hothouses for extremism where students are taught the virtues of Jihad (holy war).

The fears are understandable. Many key figures in the Taliban, which held Kabul for six years until 2001, emerged from madrassas in Baluchistan and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, both bordering Afghanistan.

"What is taught in these seminaries even now is the same brand of harsh Islam that became a hallmark of the Taliban," said political analyst Mohammad Afzal Niazi, adding that war with Soviet invaders in 1980s was also a factor.

"During the 1979-89 Afghan war, scholarly interest in Jihad, not just in terms of practice but the theology of jihad, also revived. It has now started to bulk more in the syllabi," Niazi told AFP.

More than a million students are enrolled in these schools, where they learn the Koran by heart and are also indoctrinated in the ideology of waging Jihad (holy war) as a religious duty.

"Jihad is an integral part of our religion. It is ordained in the Koran and this is what we teach in madrassas along with other aspects of religious life," said Maulvi Ahmed, the head of the Madrassa Arabia Darul Uloom Islamia in the Baluchistan capital Quetta.

But he and many other Islamic seminary officials interviewed by AFP in Quetta vehemently denied their institutions were imparting military training to students.

Ahmed said English, Mathematics and science subjects had been added to their syllabus on government instructions, but he refused to allow any official interference in religious education.

"We are not going to change our basic ideology and we will not tolerate government meddling with the affairs of our institutions."

Traditionally, the majority of madrassa students come from Afghan families as Baluchistan still hosts more than a million Afghan refugees who fled religious persecution during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a visit to the United States last month said that resurgent Taliban fighters had been finding support from radical madrassas in Pakistan.

Karzai had himself lived as a refugee in Quetta until the Taliban militia was ousted from power by US-led forces two years ago.

Pakistan, which nurtured and supported the Taliban until a policy U-turn following the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001, has dismissed Karzai's claims as baseless.

"We will not crack down on seminaries just on a presumption that they are harbouring any Taliban. But if evidence is shown to us, we will not hesitate to raid such a place," a top military official in Quetta told AFP.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on America, Pakistan's moderate military ruler Pervez Musharraf launched a reform campaign in an effort to fight extremism.

Musharraf, stressing that the religious schools were "excellent welfare set-ups where the poor get free board and lodge," has said his aim was to help these institutions overcome their "weaknesses."

Analysts here agree that the seminaries play an important role by providing education and shelter to millions of poor youth who would otherwise not have any educational opportunities.

Destitute families send their boys to the seminaries, where they get free food, clothes and education.

"My mission in life to spread teachings that I have learnt here. I do not want government or private job," 17-year-old Mohibullah from the border town of Ziarat told AFP. "I am very happy to be a servant of God."

A senior government official admitted that it would be a long and daunting task for any government to bring madrassas, run mostly on donations from Muslim philanthropists, into the mainstream educational system.