- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2001

Located in the northwestern Pakistani town of Akora Khattak is an Islamic seminary which boasts among its alumni virtually the entire leadership of the Taliban, the oppressive Islamist group that controls most of neighboring Afghanistan. The seminary, run by former Pakistani Senator Sami-ul-Haq, currently has about 3,000 young male students from Pakistan and elsewhere who are being indoctrinated with a militant version of extremist Islam that incites them to take up jihad, Islamic holy war against non-Muslims.

Although it stands apart for its notable alumni, the seminary at Akora Khattak is just one example of the thousands of seminaries, referred to as madrassas, that have burgeoned all over Pakistan in the last few decades. Many of these madrassas, in preparation for jihad, are either arming the students themselves or graduating them to militarized training camps. More disturbingly, a symbiosis has developed between these seminaries and Pakistan's rulers which is a threat to regional as well as international security. Since radical Islam is of vital concern to the U.S. national interest, American policy-makers should focus their efforts on containing these madrassas.

Until the 1970s, there were less than 1,000 madrassas in Pakistan and they were dedicated primarily to the formal instruction of Islamic theology. The decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan starting in 1979 changed this as U.S. policy-makers and their Pakistani allies, convinced that a religious opposition would be well-suited to fight the "godless communists," set out to use the seminaries as prep schools for anti-Soviet insurgents. With arms from the United States, support from the Inter-Services Intelligence(ISI), the Pakistani intelligence agency, and funding from Islamist sources abroad, the madrassas evolved into indoctrination and guerrilla training camps. In no time, they sprang up throughout the country. By 1988 there were 2,891 madrassas in Pakistan.

Despite the Soviet pullout a year later and the end of U.S. involvement, the madrassas have continued to expand over the last decade. According to a recent issue of the Pakistani newspaper Ausaf, over 6,000 madrassas exist in Pakistan today, each producing hundreds of battle-ready alumni yearly. The primary reason that madrassas have continued to grow is their support by successive Pakistani governments, including the present one under General Pervaiz Musharraf. Although a few government officials are sympathetic towards the madrassas because of their religious views, many see them more practically as rendering the country a host of services.

Indeed, the madrassas do the government a favor by functioning as social welfare institutions that house and feed many of the restless youths that would otherwise not be provided for in the poverty-stricken country. This is a surefire way of creating a cadre of people loyal to the madrassas, intent on bringing Islamist rule, like that in Afghanistan, to Pakistan a dangerous prospect for the world's latest nuclear power.

The government also supports the madrassas because they help it fight archenemy India. Seminarians, in many cases, form the bulk of extremist religious organizations, such as the Lashkar-e-Tayebba, that alongside separatists are combating Indian forces in Kashmir. This further provokes India and keeps the two regional nuclear powers precariously close to the specter of war.

The seminarians also aid Pakistan in retaining leverage over Afghanistan by constantly filling Taliban ranks and thus in turn bolstering the repressive regime. For instance, 200 seminarians joined the Taliban just last year.

During his trip to South Asia in March, President Clinton, in alluding to Islamic extremists, urged Pakistan "to intensify its efforts to defeat those who inflict terror." In recent months the government there has made apparent strides towards clamping down on madrassas by ordering their registration and calling for a standardized curriculum free of jihad indoctrination. However, given the government's vested interest, any such efforts are unlikely to be serious.

Containing the madrassas is left to U.S. policy-makers who remain concerned with both security in South Asia as well as the Taliban menace. Because an armed or political confrontation with the seminaries is certain to incite a militant backlash, the ideal way to handle them would be to deprive them of their funding which primarily comes from abroad. For instance, it is widely known that various interests within Saudi Arabia are filling the coffers of these madrassas with the goal of influencing them with their rigid brand of Islam, referred to as Wahabbism. In this case, the United States should try to work with its Saudi allies in reining in all such backers.

This would be a significant step in curbing the problem of Islamic extremism, especially given the fact that in recent years hundreds of students have been coming to these madrassas from as far away as Chechnya and the Philippines with the promise of fomenting trouble outside South Asia as well.

The rising threat of these Pakistani seminaries is in part due to myopic U.S. policy-makers who helped militarize them in the Cold War's last chapter. It is now up to the successors of those policy-makers to restrain these seminaries. Otherwise, these madrassas are certain to forge a vast and cohesive network of extremists trained to wreak terror internationally that is unparalleled a grim prospect for the free world.

Arslan Malik is a writer, living in New York.

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