Reports now suggest, however, that there have been few changes at the country's most radical madrassahs, the religious schools that spawned Afghanistan's Taliban movement.
To be fair, International Crisis Group terrorism expert Najum Mushtaq says it is wrong to label Pakistan's entire madrassah sector as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. "We should make no generalizations about madrassahs,” he told RFE/RL. “Madrassahs are of so many kinds. To associate militancy with madrassahs is only to avoid the real issue, which is that the Pakistani state has been promoting religious extremism itself -- initially with the help of the West [to stop the spread of communism from Afghanistan during the 1980s], and then on its own as a tool of Pakistan's military strategy and defense strategy. Madrassahs were, at best, a pawn in the game of religious extremism. And [even] that [refers] to a very small section of madrassahs."
A report last week in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" newspaper has drawn attention to the situation by focusing on the Dar ul-Uloom Islamia madrassah in the town of Charsadda. Situated in the remote mountains near the border with Afghanistan, the school instructed future leaders in Afghanistan's Taliban regime, such as commander Jalal al-Din Haqqani, who is high on America's most-wanted list in Afghanistan.
Indeed, the Taliban movement began with students who attended the religious schools in Pakistan. A recent European Union report says as many as 30 percent of the Taliban's fighters attended madrassahs like Dar ul-Uloom Islamia.
Dar ul-Uloom leader Maulana Gouhar Shah admitted to "The Daily Telegraph" that his madrassah sent volunteers to fight on the side of the Taliban against U.S. forces in Afghanistan in late 2001. Shah said last week that his students and staff are "still weeping" because of the collapse of the Taliban. Shah, a religious conservative who also is a member of Pakistan's parliament, acknowledged that his madrassah has not changed its fundamentalist program since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Supporters of the madrassah system say most are charitable religious schools that have helped raise the literacy rate in Pakistan. Millions of poor Pakistanis and refugees from Afghanistan never would have had access to an education if the madrassahs did not exist. But Musharraf says children who get free religious schooling at the madrassahs often grow up with few skills beyond the ability to lead prayers at a mosque.
Musharraf's reform scheme calls for modern disciplines such as English, science, mathematics, economics, and even computer science. The plan aims to curtail the enrollment of foreign students and to block funding -- both from Islamabad and from abroad -- for madrassahs that fail to register and adhere to the modern curriculum. The scheme also calls for madrassahs to stop sending students to military training camps.
Three "model" madrassahs were established in Pakistan last year using government funds. But so far, the most radical madrassahs appear to be rejecting the example. Instead, they continue to teach from a medieval syllabus that rejects "Western science" as un-Islamic.
Critics note the reform plan allows the current madrassah managers and teachers to retain their posts. Crucially, the program is not compulsory. And some conservative Islamist groups continue to oppose government interference in the curriculum.
Shortly after Musharraf approved the plan, the U.S.-based Center for Contemporary Conflict said it would take years for any positive effects to be seen.
Arnaud de Borchgrave, director of the Transnational Threats Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the shortsighted policies of the United States during the 1980s led to a proliferation of madrassahs in Pakistan. "[The legacy of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan is] all the things that [the United States] had set up to fight the Soviets -- such as the encouragement to Islamist fundamentalists to set up madrassahs along that [Pakistan-Afghanistan] border -- not so much to be emulated nationwide, but to set up an ideological barrier against what was feared to be the penetration of communist ideology into Pakistan," de Borchgrave said.
Unlike Mushtaq, de Borchgrave considers Pakistan's madrassah sector, as a whole, to be a potential source of Islamic extremism. "To this very day now, you have madrassahs that have spread all over Pakistan which were originally encouraged by the United States and Saudi Arabia," he said. "They are churning out hundreds of thousands of kids -- about an estimated 700,000 this year from about 10,000 madrassahs -- all still paid for by the Wahhabi clergy in Saudi Arabia to the tune of about $300 million a year. And that is the clear and present danger. Not Iraq. Iraq was a clear and distant danger."
Other recent international studies are critical of madrassahs that focus solely on Islamic teachings. Some madrassahs use texts from the 11th century to teach medicine and that others teach mathematics based only on the works of the ancient Greeks more than 2,300 years ago.