Pakistan's vow to rein in schools goes unfulfilled

A few months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Pervez Musharraf announced he would overhaul the Islamic religious schools that function as incubators for religious fanatics.

"The day of reckoning has come," he said.

But more than two years later, the religious seminaries known as madrassas continue to operate with little oversight, many still preaching hatred of the West. Critics say the slow reform is a prime example of Pakistan's half-hearted effort to eradicate extremism.

"Madrassa reform means nothing," said I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "That is the greatest proof of the government's lack of sincerity: You arrest 20 terrorists and train 2,000 more."

Government officials say the reform aroused strong opposition the instant Musharraf announced it, many perceiving it as an imposition by the U.S. government. Then, after the president visited some schools, he was convinced that only a handful were a problem and that the crisis was overblown, said Ijazul Haq, the minister of religious affairs.

"The original announcement was done in haste," said Haq. "They went to the madrassas, to the mosques, to put pressure on them. They thought they were under pressure from the U.S. or somebody, that they wanted to just shove it up our throat, and that's why nobody wanted to swallow it."

Madrassa operators in Peshawar say they are pleased the government appears to have backed off. They insist most don't promote terrorism - though their interpretation of "terrorism" and who is responsible for it does not necessarily agree with commonly held beliefs in the West.

"All of us are against terrorism because Islam doesn't allow terrorism," said Maulana Hassan Jan, who operates Jamia Imdadul Uloon Al Islamia, a large madrassa housed in a marble-columned former Masonic temple, a vestige of colonial rule. "So why are people involved in terrorism? Because they are oppressed by the United States and the brutalities it is committing in Afghanistan and Iraq. When someone here loses a child or a wife, you can understand how they might feel."

Madrassas have been a part of Islamic education for centuries, but their importance grew in the 1980s when Afghan refugees flooded into Pakistan after the Soviet invasion and public schools were unable to accommodate them.

So Arab countries - chiefly Saudi Arabia - funded hundreds of new madrassas, whose students included most of the Taliban leaders who would come to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Many offer primarily religious teachings, viewed through the prism of the strict fundamentalist Wahhabi sect.

The government said it has taken steps to regulate the schools. About 5,000 of an estimated 8,000 now are registered with the government, and the education ministry has created three prototype schools to serve as models.

But critics are unimpressed. "The models don't mean anything unless they're replicated," said Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group, which has studied Pakistan's education system.

"Madrassas should be a key part of anti-terrorism policy, but nothing is done," she said. "There's no monitoring of funds, no changes to the curriculum, which is anti-democratic. So the madrassas are allowed to produce a new generation of students who are anti-Western."

The United States has pledged $100 million to help Pakistan improve its public schools, also criticized by religious minorities for their heavy overlay of Islamic theology.

In March, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a skeptical congressional subcommittee Musharraf was "working hard to put in place programs to start to shift the focus of these madrassas to providing an education that's useful."

Pakistan faces enormous educational challenges, madrassas aside. Only 44 percent of girls are enrolled at the primary level, and 57 percent of boys, according to U.S. Agency for International Development. The drop-out rate during the first five years is 70 percent. About half of all adults are illiterate.

Those who do learn to read no longer receive a broad view of the world that takes in other cultures and religions, according to a study by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a think tank in Islamabad.

"Instead, children are now taught that the history of Pakistan starts from the day the first Muslim set foot in India," the report said.

With such an impoverished school system, the government is not eager to absorb the cost of paying for students in madrassas, as some reformers have proposed. Most madrassas, now funded entirely from private sources, provide free room, board and clothing.

"The government is not prepared to take up another million students and to provide them with clothing, food, and teachers," even to end extremist foreign influence on the madrassas, said the religious affairs minister, Haq.

In Peshawar, capital of the Northwest Frontier Province that contains the tribal areas where religious schools are the chief medium of education, madrassa operators insist they are not creating jihadists.

"Extremism was a circumstance associated with the invasion of Afghanistan," said Pir Muhammad Noorul-Haq Qadri, who operates nine madrassas around Peshawar. "I believe this trend is on the decline."

In Northwest Frontier Province, Islamic political parties won provincial elections two years ago, and sentiment strongly favors the government keeping its nose out.

"I'm against the government interfering in the affairs of the madrassas," said Maulana Jan, who heads an Islamic political party in addition to operating Jamia Imdadul Uloom Al Islamia. "These religious institutions operate on their own basis. Only the religious leaders decide what we shall teach."

Jan said his school was teaching English, math and science long before Musharraf urged madrassas to broaden their curriculum beyond Islamic studies. But religion still dominates. On a recent day, 300 students sat in a circle around Jan as he lectured on the Koran.

A beefy man with a long, untrimmed beard, Jan said his school registered with the government, but only to trademark its name, not to submit to control. The school houses 1,150 students, all male and about a third from Afghanistan.

Jan said he has never met Osama bin Laden, though he has spoken with Mullah Mohammed Omar, head of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime. Musharraf appointed Jan to visit Omar in Kabul, to urge him to surrender bin Laden before the U.S. bombing began in 2001.

"The Taliban were not terrorists, there was no justification for the American aggression against them," he said. "The United States needs to change its policy. America talks about love, peace and justice. When they start living that way, then I think there won't be any terrorism."

Jan assigned teacher Mohammed Rahim to guide a visitor around the school. Rahim clearly had something on his mind as he walked along, growing increasingly agitated.

Finally, he demanded to know what America has against bin Laden. "There was never anything proven against Osama bin Laden," he said. "Why do you kill thousands of people just to get one man?"

He said most Pakistanis believe that Americans stage-managed Sept. 11 in order to justify an attack on Islam.

Back in his office, Jan said there is little the government can do to control what is taught at madrassas.

"We are Muslims," he said. "We need to have madrassas. It's part of our culture. Islamic education has been going on for the last 1,400 years and it will continue until the last day we are on Earth."