Foreigners See Backlash at Pakistan Religious School

Walk across the marble courtyard of the Abu Bakar Islamic University in the teeming port city of Karachi and you will see as many foreign students as Pakistanis.

The looks from young skull-capped, bearded Muslims from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Africa when a Western reporter enters the now infamous madrassah are suspicious and unfriendly, but perhaps that is hardly surprising.

Since 11 students from Malaysia and Indonesia were arrested in September for suspected terror links, the large foreign contingent is feeling under siege and the university is fuming at its growing reputation as a militant breeding ground.

One of those deported by Pakistani authorities was the brother of a man known as Hambali, a top Southeast Asian al Qaeda suspect from Indonesia.

Gun Gun Rusman Gunawan is one of four Indonesian students now being held by Indonesian police for suspected links to Hambali's activities and several bombings.

Leaders at the madrassah, located in Karachi's middle-class Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighborhood, say the government is making it hard for foreign students to attend, and some chose to stay home this term.

"Since the 1980s, all students at this institution have been here to study and were never involved in anything. There is no case against them," said Vice Chancellor Maulana Ash Mohammad.

With a long beard dyed orange and piercing eyes, the elderly cleric told Reuters Gunawan was guilty by association only.

Foreign students interviewed by Reuters said they studied the Koran and Islam, not militancy. But some of the views expressed by the teaching staff could only be described as extreme.


One Indonesian student at Abu Bakar University has been studying there for eight years since completing a mechanical engineering degree at home.

"They teach us here according to Islam," the 33-year-old, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. "We do not learn terrorism."

But he said the arrests and deportations had caused concern among the 201 foreign students, nearly half the total of 482.

"Our parents back in Indonesia are very worried. From the beginning I have learned to support peace. I don't know why this happened to our brothers."

The bearded student in trademark white cap and baggy trousers and shirt said it was his responsibility to return home and pass on the knowledge he acquired at the madrassah. It is Sunni Muslim and holds lessons entirely in Arabic, the language of the Koran.

While officials deny its links to Islamic militants, it is ideologically, and some say more directly, linked to the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba group based in Pakistan and fighting Indian rule in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Taiba was one of two Pakistan-based Islamic groups blamed by New Delhi for an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, that almost triggered war between the South Asian rivals.

A 25-year-old Ghanaian, who requested anonymity, also denied "terror" links at the seminary.

He can recite the Koran by heart and wants to set up a similar madrassah in Ghana when he completes his studies.

The man in charge of the school's student affairs, who gave his name only as Mubashir, said that 28 foreign students had not returned for the new term that began in December because of the arrest scandal.

"We have received many calls from students in Malaysia, Indonesia and Ghana asking for information on what happened," he said. He added that some Indonesian students had been prevented from enrolling, while others had simply failed to return.

There are 68 Thais studying at the complex, 62 Afghans, 17 Ugandans, 15 Malaysians, nine Indonesians and seven Somalians.


After the students had left the room, members of the teaching staff expressed strongly anti-Semitic views, even to the point of voicing sympathy with Hitler.

"The problem is not the Muslims, the problem is the Jews," said one, adding that he believed the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001 were coordinated by Jews.

It is a relatively popular theory in Pakistan, where anti-American and anti-Israeli opinions have hardened since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The Jews are dangerous, and Hitler understood that," the teacher said.

Mohammad Younus Siddiqui, director of teaching, said it was not Americans people hated, but their government's policies.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, has called for reform of madrassahs, which offer free schooling, food and accommodation for hundreds of thousands of young boys and men.

While Musharraf says they perform a key social function, he wants to see curricula modernized to include more subjects beyond religion to curb extremist views.