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In Central Asia, Unofficial Madrasahs Raise Official Fears

  • Farangis Najibullah

Madrasah students study at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Madrasah students study at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Muhtar Yusupbekov has no regrets about his decision to send his 12-year-old son Muhammad abroad to Egypt to study. Muhammad, his father says, used to attend a local Russian-language school in his native Bishkek, but "he always had a passion to study religion, especially the Koran."

Concerned that their home country could not provide an environment conducive to learning, Muhammad's parents decided to enroll their budding scholar at an Egyptian madrasah, where he enjoys a well-rounded curriculum that includes Islamic studies as well as Arabic and English.

Yusupbekov says he's proud of Muhammad, and hopes he returns to Kyrgyzstan as a "good Muslim and good human being."

"We are happy, because nowadays many parents are worried that their kids will get involved in drugs and alcoholism, and it's dangerous for them," Yusupbekov says. "In a Muslim country, there is a 100-percent guarantee your kids will stay clear of such risks."

The school the Yusupbeksovs chose has been approved by the Kyrgyz government, but the vast number of madrasahs abroad have not. And with an increasing number of parents in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, opting to send their children to madrasahs abroad, concerns are being expressed.

Officials worry that Central Asian youths who head abroad to study at unsanctioned madrasahs run the risk of being indoctrinated by radical groups that preach extremist forms of Islam. The best-case scenario is that the students would end up at a school that simply provided a good Islamic education, as many of the unapproved madrasahs certainly would. But the worst-case scenario is that they would return home harboring a deep-seated hatred toward Central Asia's secular states, with newfound knowledge of how to fight them.

In an example of what kind of schooling might be recieved, video clips circulating on the web and claiming to show Uzbek children at a Badr at-Tawheed madrasah in Pakistan feature young men carrying guns and learning about jihad.

Unsanctioned Education

Most often, Central Asian parents seeking an Islamic education for their children settle on state-approved madrasahs in their home countries. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, nearly 3,000 students were enrolled in 52 officially registered madrasahs in 2009. The country also offers nine officially approved Islamic-based institutions of higher education, including an Islamic university in Bishkek. Although no enrollment figures are available, there are at least 20 officially registered religious schools and an Islamic University in Tajikistan.

Other times, like the Yusupbeksovs, parents look abroad, where their children enroll in programs mutually agreed upon by the respective states. Government grants are often offered to facilitate the process, with the host nation usually taking care of most expenses. Other parents draw on private funds to send their children to other countries to study. Kyrgyzstan's official Mufti Murataaly Juman Uulu, for example, estimates that some 400 Kyrgyz citizens are currently studying in Islamic schools in Turkey and in Arab countries.

The precise number of Central Asian students studying at unsanctioned religious schools abroad is much more difficult to pinpoint. Regional media estimate that at least 4,000 young men from Tajikistan alone study at unofficial religious schools in Pakistan, Iran, and in Arab countries without the government's knowledge. The Tajik Embassy in Islamabad says that between 250 and 300 Tajik men and boys -- some as young as 10 years old -- study at unofficial madrasahs in Pakistan.

According to centrasia.ru, a popular Russian-language website, there is a "special set of religious groups" in the region involved in recruiting young men and women interested in an Islamic education. The website claims thousands of young people have been illegally sent by such groups to Iran, Pakistan, and Arab states, where it alleges they are "brainwashed" with radical and terrorist ideas.

Tajik diplomats in Pakistan confirm such claims, saying the majority of such students have entered the country illegally, mostly through Afghanistan and Iran. "It is an alarming situation that the majority of them study in underground madrasahs -- in so-called religious schools that have no official license to operate," says Zubaidullo Zubaidov, the Tajik ambassador to Pakistan.

"In these madrasahs, students twice a year receive a set of traditional Pakistani clothes and a few soaps,” Zubaidov says. “They live in basements or in mosques and eat whatever handout they're given by the mosques. What exactly do they study in such conditions?"

"When you speak to these young men," Zubaidov continues, "you quickly notice that their views of their own country and society have completely changed."

Anti-Extremist Efforts

The Tajik Embassy in Pakistan works closely with Pakistani authorities to register these students and repatriate them to Tajikistan. In 2009, Tajikistan sent a high-ranking delegation -- including top security officials -- to Islamabad to coordinate efforts against extremism and the threat of terrorism.

Zubaidov says that those efforts include searching for ways to prevent young Tajiks from falling victim to extremist groups, including the prospect that they could do so at unofficial madrasahs. Tajik officials insist that many graduates of foreign religious schools have been involved in preaching and promoting ideas that threaten the country's stability.

In recent years, Tajikistan has banned at least two religious groups, the Salafi and Jamoati Tabligh movements. According to officials, both movements were established and operated by graduates of Pakistani madrasahs. Followers of both religious movements, however, reject claims that they pose any security threats, saying they merely promote religious values.

Saadi Yosufi, a Dushanbe-based analyst on religious issues, downplays the alleged security threats posed by foreign madrasah graduates. "These fears are exaggerated. You don't have to undergo Pakistani madrasah education to become a religious extremist," Yosufi tells RFE/RL. "There are many young men who have become extremists in England and other Western countries, so it's up to an individual what path to choose," he says.

Importing ‘Fanaticism’

Many others, however, share governments' concerns about graduates of questionable madrasahs importing extremist ideas to Central Asia.

Bishkek resident Kaiyrbek Nanybaev says many people are suspicious of the "views and opinions" some madrasah graduates bring from Pakistan. "I'm afraid some of our students in those Islamic schools will bring religious fanaticism here," Nanybaev said.

Officials in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which keep a tight rein on all forms of religion, including Christianity and Islam, insist that they do not deny young people the right to study at religious schools. They do maintain, however, that students should only enroll at officially registered schools, whether at home or abroad.

Ambassador Zubaidov, for example, notes that there are ample opportunities for young people to enroll formally at registered madrasahs in Pakistan, and to enter the country legally with valid visas. And Zubaidov says Pakistan has offered to accept a certain number of Tajik citizens for enrollment at its universities, where they can study computer science, medicine, and economics while receiving a religious education.

Zubaidov and other officials in Central Asia say that only those who don't have information about such opportunities choose "unofficial and dangerous ways" to receive Islamic educations abroad.

Back in Bishkek, Yusupbekov is content with his young son's education prospects in Egypt. "I want my son to learn Islamic values," he said. "However, learning religion alone is not a profession, so Muhammad will also study secular science to make a living in the future."

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Tajik Services contributed to this report

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