- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

DEOBAND, India In this crowded, fly-infested town where the Taliban was born, Islamic seminarians see the Afghan rulers as heroes and see nothing wrong with the destruction of two historic stone Buddhas in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban are our heroes and we have nothing against the fact that they bombed the stone Buddhas," says Wasi Zama, 25, rocking back and forth on his heels.
The Taliban, who control 90 percent of Afghanistan, recently destroyed two giant statues of Buddha hewn out of rock more than 1,500 years ago because they said that the statues were idolatrous and contrary to Islam. The actions caused world outrage.
"The American media has maligned the Taliban, but how bad could they be? After all, their ideology comes from here," he says, sweeping his arm across the perfectly manicured gardens and the historic complex of buildings called Dar-ul-Uloom.
"I would like to meet them personally and shake their hand."
But Mr. Zama is unlikely to ever get a meeting with his idols in Afghanistan because the seminary to which he belongs, begun in 1866, is located in the middle of this tiny, crowded town about a three-hour drive from New Delhi and hundreds of miles from Kabul.
The Deobandis, as the followers of the school of thought refer to themselves, take a restrictive view of the role of women, ban all pictures of the human form and reject the Shia sect of Islam.
Deoband, which is considered to be the founding school for the Taliban, attracts 3,500 students every year from as far as the United Kingdom and Malaysia.
Yesterday, just outside Peshawar, Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of Deobandis gathered to proclaim their fundamentalist brand of Islam. Organizers expect as many as 1 million celebrants to gather for the three-day festival.
In 1947, when the country was partitioned into India and Pakistan, a teacher from Dar-ul-Uloom by the name of Maulana Abdul Haq went to Pakistan to begin a similar school there. Hundreds of students from neighboring Afghanistan attended the school known as Haqqania and proceeded to take its views to an extreme.
Pakistan's Islam of the Deoband seminary dictates that men are born smarter than women, music is evil, and education for girls beyond 8 years old is a waste of time. It considers the West to be decadent, immoral and against Islam.
Male followers are prohibited from shaving and women are forced to wear the all-enveloping burqa.
By 1999, at least eight Taliban Cabinet ministers in Kabul were graduates of the Pakistani school and dozens more graduates served as Taliban provincial governors, military commanders, judges and bureaucrats.
Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has tried unsuccessfully to curb the influence of the schools from where graduates filled with religious fervor depart for Afghanistan, Indian-held Kashmir and other destinations, to fight.
Some of this fervor, historians say, can be traced back to the shade of a gnarled pomegranate tree that served as the first classroom in Dar-ul-Uloom. But Adil Siddiqui disagrees.
"They say that we train terrorists at our school, too, but look around you, do you see any signs of terrorism? Our students are only involved in higher learning," says school administrator Adil Siddiqui, walking around the dimly lit classrooms where students sit on the floor, their heads bowed over religious texts.
However, Dar-ul-Uloom does pride itself as playing a leadership role in shaping purist Muslim religious thinking.
"We expect [religious schools] in Pakistan to refer to us when they have any religious doubts," says Mr. Siddiqui.
"Many people in Pakistan and Afghanistan refer to themselves as Deobandis because this school is where their purist ideas all came from," says the head of Arabic Studies at the Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi, Shafiq Nadwi.
Funded by public donations, Dar-ul-Uloom spends a little over $1 million a year, but charges its students nothing.

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