The New York Times on Pakistani Madrasas

From: Joe Dees (
Date: Wed Oct 31 2001 - 05:00:05 MST

('binary' encoding is not supported, stored as-is) Nurturing Young Islamic Hearts and Hatreds


PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct. 13 A thousand years ago, in the days of the
camel caravans, storytellers gathered here in the tea shops and brought
the outside world and all its thoughts and ideas to the bazaar. As the
vendors hawked silk, spice and rich tapestries and traders herded beasts
through streets thick with smoke from cooking fires, travelers from
distant lands and differing religions told stories about moguls, magic,
wit and wisdom. In time, the bazaar came to be known as Qissa Khwani
the Bazaar of the Storytellers.

Now, the streets are still choked with donkey carts, and meat still
sizzles on open pits, but the vendors are poor men selling simple things.
Blaring car horns drown out all other sound, just as the teachers and
students in the Islamic seminaries that surround this bazaar have drowned
out all conflicting ideas, all unacceptable thoughts.

The storytellers no longer come. There is just one story now, at least
one acceptable story. It is the one taught in the seminaries, called
madrassas, that have become incubators in Pakistan for the holy warriors
who say they will die to defend Islam and their hero, Osama bin Laden,
from the infidels. In many of the 7,500 madrassas in Pakistan, inside a
student body of 750,000 to a million, students learn to recite and obey
Islamic law, and to distrust and even hate the United States.

"Jihad," shouted a little boy, from a high window in a madrassa just
steps from the Khwani Bazaar. He grinned and waved as foreign journalists
snapped his photograph, but, on the streets below, older students had
massed for demonstrations that would end in clouds of tear gas and smoke
from burning tires, as young men jumped through fire to prove their faith
and ferocity.

President Bush and diplomats from the West have taken great pains to
point out that the war on Mr. bin Laden and the Taliban of Afghanistan is
not a war on Islam, but in many madrassas here in Pakistan especially
those near the border with Afghanistan militant Muslims lecture
students that the United States is a nation of Christians and Jews who
are not after a single terrorist or government but are bent on the
worldwide annihilation of Islam.

The madrassas' sword is in the narrow education they offer, and the
devotion they engender from students from the poorest classes who,
without them, would have nowhere to go, or go hungry.

At the Markaz Uloom Islamia madrassa in Peshawar, Muhammad Sabir, 22,
motioned to the eerily quiet compound, devoid of students. Final exams
are over, he said. The scholars, many of them, have left to fight against
the United States. "They have gone for jihad," said Mr. Sabir, a student
there. "It is our moral and religious duty." He said the words
automatically, woodenly, as if repeating his elder's recitation of the

"There is no practical training of terrorists here," said Asif Qureishi,
an Islamic scholar and the son of Maulana Mohd Yousaf Qureishi, who heads
the Darul-Uloom Ashrafia madrassa in Peshawar. There are no weapons, no
knives or guns, no weapons training. The madrassas hone only the mind, he

"We prepare them for the jihad, mentally," said Mr. Qureishi, whose
duties at the madrassa include the call to prayers. In a small room at
the madrassa, students nodded appreciatively at his words. Some were no
more than 10.

"The minds are fresh," he said. In his tiny office, a bag of rice rests
against a wall. Outside the door, a student hefts the carcass of a
slaughtered goat.

What the students hear, in compounds that range from spartan to squalid,
is a drumbeat of American injustice, cruelty and closed-mindedness the
United States is just that way, the elders say.

"They send cruise missiles against gravestones," said Al-Sheikh Rahat
Gul, the stick-thin, 81-year-old maulana who heads Markaz Uloom Islamia
in Peshawar, a madrassa with about 250 students.

The Americans kill only innocents, said the maulana, a large pair of
thick-lensed, black-framed glassed sitting crookedly on his head. "The
Koran forbids the killing of females, children, elders and cattle," he
said. "That is war. That is not holy war." Sons of Islam must answer that
tyranny with holy war, he said.

He condemns the World Trade Center attack but dismisses any connection to
this part of the world. "The Jews have done this," he said, calling the
attacks a plot by Israel to draw the world into war. "And the Hindus are
just like them." It is repeated madrassa by madrassa, the company line of
the militants and the poorer classes from which they come, spreading out
from the student body to the shops and foot traffic.

Maulana Gul proudly points to a cartoon on the back of a pamphlet at his
madrassa that shows Afghanistan encircled by a chain, and the chain is
secured by a padlock that is labeled "United Nations." Inside the chain
are weeping children. Hands reach from all directions with offerings of
food, money and grain, hands are grabbed at the wrist by other hands
labeled "U.S.A.," preventing that aid from getting to the starving people.

In the madrassas, students ranging in age from 7 or 8 to men over 20 are
taught a strict interpretation of the Koran, including the duty of all
Muslims to rise up in jihad. There are no televisions and some madrassas
do not even allow transistor radios. There are no magazines or newspapers
except those deemed acceptable by the elders. The outside world is closed
to them, and many of the students seem puzzled when asked if they mind
that. Their teachers, most of them respected elders, tell them what they
need to know, the students said.

Almost all the leadership of the Taliban, including Mullah Muhammad Omar,
was educated in madrassas in Pakistan most of them in a single
madrassa, Jamia Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khatak in the Northwest
Frontier Province of Pakistan. The anti-American protests that have
filled the streets in Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi have been
planned in madrassas their maulanas, the elders who run the schools,
are the spiritual hub of the protests.

In Quetta, after the United States began its missile attacks on the
Taliban, 300 Afghans who had attended madrassas in Pakistan crossed the
border to join the jihad. Every day, said madrassa students, Pakistanis
slip over the border to join them.

"The madrassas indulge in brainwashing on a large scope, of the young
children and those in their early teens," said Arasiab Khattak, chairman
of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who stressed it is unfair to
say that all madrassas are the same. Some are more militant than others.

But along the border with Afghanistan, the vast majority of madrassas
have become an assembly line for the jihad. Even the scholars themselves
and their teachers say that this is so.

Almost all the students come from poor families who cannot afford any
other education in a country that spends about 90 percent of its budget
on debt service and the military and almost nothing on public schools.

A large family, said Mr. Khattak, often sends two or three sons to a
madrassa because it cannot afford to feed them. "There is no access to
the regular education system," he said.

The madrassas, often supported by donors from other Islamic states like
Saudi Arabia, offer a narrow education many of them do not teach
science, math, languages or any history beyond that in the Koran but do
offer students food and a place to sleep. In madrassas, children from the
hardest poverty in Pakistan and orphans from wars in Afghanistan, get
enough to eat.

Here, the difference between poverty and wealth is apparent on a person's
feet. If someone wears sandals made of leather, they have at least some
wealth. The poorest wear mass-produced sandals made of plastic. At the
doors to the madrassas here no one enters any office or classroom
wearing shoes rows of plastic sandals sit just outside the doors.

There have been madrassas in Pakistan for hundreds of years, austere
stone and brick schools built around a mosque where students spend as
many as eight years being instructed in the Koran. They learn by
parroting their mullahs, who recite the Koran. There are no questions, no

In the past quarter-century, said experts on the madrassas, jihad has
become more than a lesson to recite.

In the 1980's, students left these madrassas to fight against the Soviet
Union in Afghanistan including many Pakistanis, some of whom have an
ethnic and tribal kinship to the Afghans. In the 1990's students became
foot soldiers and leaders in the Taliban. Now, they form an army around
Osama bin Laden.

In the hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11,
students described how they ran through the sprawling Jamia Darul Uloom
Haqqania compound celebrating, stabbing the fingers on one hand into the
palm of the other, to simulate a plane stabbing into a building.

The morning after the attacks, elders at the madrassa, which translates
to "The University of All Righteous Knowledge," summoned students to
study hall. The elders explained what had happened. "No, no, not
Muslims," said Fazal Ghani, 22, an Afghan, as he passed on his teachers'
explanation of who had caused the deaths of thousands. "This was Yehudi,"
the Jews. "trying to discredit Islam." He tried to express his sympathy
for the victims of the bombings, saying "Bad, bad," but he could not stop

His teachers had explained that, even though the Jews flew the planes
into the towers, it was Allah's will. Allah, the teachers said, put the
idea in the minds of the Jews.

Allah, in his wisdom, knew that the Muslims would perhaps be briefly
discredited, the students said, but that when the truth came out, it
would ultimately destroy the Jews.

Radios are allowed at this madrassa, and some of the students had held
radios to their ears all night, listening to news reports. But that was
just noise, just electricity. The truth, the only truth, came from the
madrassa's teachers.

"The wrath of God," the teachers had said.

But until recent violent demonstrations in Pakistan planned in the
madrassas and carried out, at least in part, by students there was no
government condemnation. Just two weeks ago, the Pakistan president,
Pervez Musharraf, was calling them "misunderstood organizations," that
were actually welfare systems to aid the poor. He has since jailed
several of the madrassas' leaders, after demonstrations in Quetta and
Karachi left businesses ablaze.

Maulana Khalid Banori, who heads Darul-Uloom Sarhad in Peshawar, sees
himself as a college superintendent. Students at his madrassa study
science, math and English, and can use credits earned here to apply for
graduate schools, or they can use their education to qualify for civil
service jobs. He said he wants his students to have a well-rounded
education, but one based in the teachings of Islam.

He hopes the violence will end, that the terrorism will end. It will, he
said, as soon the Americans stop committing it.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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