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Pakistan: Militants Seek Religious State -- Part 2

  • Charles Recknagel

Pakistan's support of the Taliban in Afghanistan has strengthened militant Islamic groups inside Pakistan itself. Now many of them not only take part in fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir but also have begun to speak of the need for a jihad -- or holy war -- against Pakistan's own secular establishment. In this second part of a two-part series on Pakistan's Islamic extremism, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel visits a radical madrassah, or religious school, to learn what kind of Islamic revolution in Pakistan the militants want.

Akhora Khattak, Pakistan; 9 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Halfway down the highway from Islamabad to Peshawar is the spiritual home of many of the leaders of Afghanistan's Taliban and Pakistan's Sunni militants.

It is a sprawling complex of multilevel classroom buildings, dormitories, and public auditoriums which make up the Dur-ul-Uloom Haqqania, one of the oldest, wealthiest and most popular madrassahs -- or religious schools -- in Pakistan.

Just how popular the school is can be judged by the number of poor families who respond to its offer to give boys free religious education in a country where there is no compulsory or cost-free state instruction. Two years ago, the madrassah received 15,000 applicants for some 400 new places.

Once enrolled, the boys join a student body of 1,500 boarding-students and 1,000 day-students pursuing an eight-year master of arts course in Islamic studies. The curriculum focuses on memorizing the Koran and studying Shariah (Islamic law), and includes some mathematics and astronomy. It is not set by the Ministry of Education and does not qualify graduates for jobs in the state or most of the private sector.

But being excluded from the mainstream is considered a badge of honor at this school. The Haqqania madrassah adheres to the Deobandi movement in Sunni Islam, which was founded in response to British colonial rule in India and later hardened in Pakistan into bitter opposition to what its members views as the country's neo-colonial elite. Now the madrassah and thousands like it are deliberately preparing its students to build an alternative society.

The school, founded in 1947, has become famous recently as the alma mater (that is, former school) of many of the Taliban's senior leaders, who studied here as Afghan refugees. It is reported still to reserve 400 places for Afghan students, as well as some 60 places for students from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

A visitor finds the director, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, in one of the school's shady courtyards. He is surrounded by students who are waiting for him to go to the campus mosque to deliver the Friday prayer sermon. He is impossible to mistake because he is a large, affable man whose full beard is dyed bright red with henna.

Asked about the school's ties with the Taliban, Haq says the madrassah and militants have a teacher-student relationship. He speaks proudly of the Taliban's achievements.

"The relationship between the students and a university is a special kind of relationship. People studying in Cambridge or Oxford keep their loyalty and affection for those universities. The Taliban have studied in the madrassahs here and are doing a very good job today in Afghanistan bringing peace and security and establishing an Islamic system in their country."

After the Taliban suffered a serious military setback in 1997 in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Haq is reported to have closed down his madrassah and sent his entire student body to reinforce the militia. Other Deobandi madrassahs in Pakistan do the same. The students receive military training in camps in Afghanistan, making them an important pool of reserves the Taliban can regularly rely on.

Haq does not conceal his hopes that one day there will be a Taliban-like government in Pakistan. He says he does not consider the current Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which was founded as a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims, to be Islamic because he regards the ruling elite as Westernized and corrupt.

He says a truly Islamic republic would substitute the full code of Sharia for the country's largely Western-based legal system because only then could there be a more equitable distribution of wealth and power.

But Haq says that he does not want a violent imposition of Islamic rule as in Iran or Afghanistan. Instead, he says, he is working for change through Pakistan's parliamentary system.

"We do not want a bloody revolution. I myself have been a member of parliament for 16 years and I have struggled for an Islamic system through the democratic process. It has not been possible to establish an Islamic regime here in Pakistan because the Western powers do not want that and the domestic powers are corrupt. An Islamic republic would not enrich them. But we do not want a bloody revolution, we will try through democratic means."

Still, the ideological divide between the students of radical madrassahs like Haqqania and Pakistan's secular elite may be so wide that one day clashes will be inevitable.

The Islamic Sunni militants share the Taliban's restrictive view of women and regard Pakistan's minority Shiia as non-Muslim. They seek a pure leader, or amir, to recreate Pakistani society according to the egalitarian model of Islam's early days under the Prophet Mohammed.

A student asked at random to say a few words about his aspirations says he would rather recite verses from the Koran into the microphone instead.

Pakistani officials have assessed that 10 to 15 percent of the country's estimated 50,000 madrassahs espouse extremist ideologies. A battle is now looming over how much control the state can impose upon the religious schools.

Last summer, Pakistan's Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider announced a plan to require all madrassahs to register with the government, expand their curricula, disclose their financial resources, seek permission for admitting foreign students, and stop sending students to militant training camps.

But so far less than 4,500 madrassahs have registered and the opposition to doing so from religious leaders has been strong.

The issue of funding has proved particularly sensitive. Twenty years ago, Pakistan had only a few hundred madrassahs and these were mostly financed by a state-collected religious tithe, which gave the government an indirect control over the schools.

Yet today, more and more of the now tens of thousands of religious schools are privately funded, either by wealthy Pakistanis or by private and state-funded organizations in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Iran.

Moderate Pakistanis say today's absence of state control leaves the madrassahs free to preach narrow and violent versions of Islam that show no tolerance for those who want a more civil and democratic society.

Asif Khan, Punjab province coordinator for the human rights party Liberal Forum, says militants at times physically attack those who champion more liberal values.

"Especially in these days, we are directly in conflict with these fundamentalist groups. And especially in the northern areas, in the Northwest Frontier Province, they attack many NGOs physically. Even in Punjab, they are issuing very strong statements against NGOs and people pleading for secularism, democracy, and liberalism."

Moderates like Khan say that the best way to counter the fundamentalists is to reduce the country's high levels of poverty and illiteracy and to give more people a stake in their own governance.

The economy is currently reeling under a $38 billion foreign debt accumulated over the last two decades. Servicing of the debt required 86 percent of the government's revenues last fiscal year, leaving little money for social development programs. At the same time, the World Bank estimates that only 40 percent of Pakistan's population is literate.

The country's democratic progress has been halted since General Pervez Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup 18 months ago. But the military government has pushed ahead with reforms to devolve more powers from the provincial to the district level.

Moderates hope that the devolution of powers will help small, local parties play a greater role in building their communities and in changing Pakistan's political culture, which in recent years has alienated many. The past decades have seen a bitter power struggle between the parties of now exiled ex-prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif that many in Pakistan feel served only to enrich the two parties' leaders.

Now Pakistan's chances for rebuilding its democracy and heading off the further spread of fundamentalism lie almost entirely with Musharraf, who says he will return the country to civilian rule before the third anniversary of his coup.

But beyond this promise, the military leader has given few signs of his future plans, including whether or not he might become president after that date.

(This concludes the two-part series on Pakistan and militancy.)