- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

LAHORE, Pakistan The smiling boys playing cricket on the rooftop playground of their "madrassa" religious school are all being trained in one subject: "jihad," or holy war.

The nearly 2,000 students expect to go fight infidels in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Palestine or Indian Kashmir once they complete their studies at the Khuddamuddin madrassa, located inside the walls of the old city of Lahore.

Khuddamuddin is one of about 7,000 religious schools, which have prospered in part because of the failure of the state-run educational system in a country where the illiteracy rate among adults has been estimated as high as 70 percent.

About 1.75 million students are enrolled in the schools, though it is not clear how many of the academies are devoted to preparing their students for jihad.

The Khuddamuddin school is run by Mohammed Ajmal Qadri, leader of one of the three branches of the fundamentalist Jamiat Ulema Islam party, who said nearly 13,000 trained jihad fighters have passed through his school. At least 2,000 of those are now in or on their way to Indian-held Kashmir, he said.

Mr. Qadri said in an interview that eventually all people must become Muslim, including the Christians and Jews of the United States. "The world has to go the way we want. It's our divine right to lead humanity," he said.

Up on the stone rooftop courtyard of his 110-year-old school, the students were taking advantage of a free period to hit a cricket ball, run and wrestle like children anywhere in the world. But one slightly built boy explained how he and his classmates were being directed toward a life of violent struggle.

"Most kids here go for jihad and I will too, God willing," said Obeidulla Anwer, 14. "Jihad is to fight for Islam and the pride of Islam."

Like most of his classmates, he will leave the school at about age 18 and go to a military training camp in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, Afghanistan or some other secret location. After that training, he said, "We go to fight in Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, Afghanistan."

Asked whether he was prepared to hurt or kill, the boy said: "I will hurt those who are enemies of Islam. And I know that I could be hurt or killed."

The chances that Obeidulla will die violently are high. A 23-year-old fighter with another group, Hizbul Mujahideen, said that five of the eight young men in his squad had died during his 18 months fighting against Indian troops in Kashmir, where an estimated 30,000 people have died in civil strife since 1989.

Obeidulla was asked how he would recognize the enemies of Islam. "If I greet them with 'Salam Aleikum' and they won't say it back," he said.

The boy was asked: "Since most Americans do not know how to respond to the traditional Muslim greeting, are they enemies of Islam?"

"I don't know," he said, looking expectantly at his hovering teachers, who appeared similarly confused by the question. Asked whether all non-Muslims were anti-Muslim, he did not need to check with his teachers. "No," he said firmly.

The school is preparing Obeidulla and his classmates for the hard life of soldiers with an experience that provides little comfort or privacy. The children all sleep on the floor of the school's mosque on sleeping bags, which they roll up each morning.

They rise at 3 a.m. for study and prayers with a break for play around 4:30. At 7:30, they have breakfast and then study until 11 a.m. when they sleep for two hours.

They pray, study, have lunch, pray, study and pray again until dinner at 9:30 p.m., after which they go to the mosque to sleep.

Parents choose this hard life for their children for a variety of reasons, with religious conviction and the poverty of village life both having major roles.

Religion dominates life in Pakistan, where the national airline begins its flights with a reading from the Koran or a prayer. Politicians, even those educated in London or Boston and living apparently Westernized lives, vie in calling for stricter Islamic laws.

Poverty is the other goad.

A half-hour drive from Lahore and just a stone's throw from the Indian border crossing at Wagha, farmer Mohammed Shaffi explained why his 13-year-old son attends the local madrassa.

There he memorizes the Koran in Arabic, which he cannot understand, though he still has not been taught to read and write the national language, Urdu.

"How can a poor man educate his son?" asked Mr. Shaffi. "If the school is free, the books are not. And the paper."

Mr. Shaffi did not even mention the cost of school clothes. As he spoke, two of his children played naked in the dirt path in their village, Dayal.

Another son, Maratab Ali Shaffi, 13, wore a filthy, torn pair of shorts as he helped his mother and father pack mud upon a brick wall to increase its height.

Mr. Shaffi said it was too early to make a decision about letting the boy go into a madrassa. But with the drumbeat of resurgent Islam in the air and hopes of a good job slim for an illiterate youth from the countryside, jihad is not an unlikely choice.

The family has two acres of land, on which 6-inch-tall rice plants waved above the flooded paddies. They have electricity but can afford to run only two light bulbs. They have no radio or television. No one in the family can read or write.

The local madrassa, by contrast, will provide Maratab a free daily meal and sometimes a free shirt.

In Lahore, Mr. Qadri said he was proud that his school is able to direct youths like Maratab into holy war in places like Chechnya and Kashmir. But it is America that seems to be his ultimate target, one he hopes to defeat through converting its people to Islam.

"There are now over 3,000 mosques and madrassas in America and they are a divine gift for Americans. American civilization is a Monica [Lewinsky] civilization," he said with a hearty laugh.

"American civilization is empty and hollow from inside. Islam is the only cultural system that could bear the load of life for the times to come."

He was similarly dismissive of Hinduism, the religion of about 900 million people in neighboring India, describing it as nothing more than a system "of fashions and traditions."

Mr. Qadri said he will defy attempts by the new military government to regulate the madrassas, beginning with a requirement that they report on the numbers and names of students and teachers, types of facilities, educational programs and financial details.

The government, stung by charges from U.S. officials that it allows Islamic terrorism to fester under the guise of religious schools, has also called for the schools to begin offering practical subjects such as math and science as well as memorization of the Koran.

The government also is asking the schools to report to local police the names of any foreign students and to list any "fatwas" or religious rulings they issue.

"We believe our rules are perfect, and we will not allow any ruler, military or so-called elected representatives," to change them, Mr. Qadri said.

The News, an English-language national newspaper, quoted several madrassa heads claiming the data was being collected on the instructions of anti-Islamic Western forces, particularly the United States and Israel.

While such claims seem far-fetched to better-educated Pakistanis, they are widely believed by others. Many Pakistanis already feel abandoned by the West since U.S.-backed rebels drove out the Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving their country to cope alone with a huge refugee problem.

Pakistanis also feel it is unfair to blame them for supporting terrorism when veterans of that conflict in Afghanistan turn to jihad in Kashmir or Chechnya.

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