- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

Pakistan’s education minister said yesterday that her nation’s campaign to rein in thousands of unofficial Islamic schools, seen as a prime recruiting ground for Muslim radicals, will require a decade or more.

Education Minister Zubaida Jalal also cautioned against an idea floated by some in the Bush administration to funnel private donations to Islamic schools with a pro-Western outlook.

“We are making good progress, but you can’t hope to see real results in just two or three years. It doesn’t happen that way, much as we would all like to see it,” Mrs. Jalal said in an interview.

“We are talking about changing attitudes and mind-sets of children who have 10 to 12 years of schooling ahead of them,” she added.

The network of private Pakistani schools, known as madrassas, became the focus of global attention in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Many prominent Islamic fundamentalist militants, including a large number of senior ministers in the ousted Taliban regime of Afghanistan, were alumni of the Pakistani schools, which received substantial funding from Saudi and other Arab sources and promoted a particularly strict, anti-Western version of Islam.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a leaked memo last month, suggested creating a private foundation to channel funds to pro-Western Islamic schools. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has proposed a similar effort.

When asked about the idea, Mrs. Jalal said: “I would very much hope they wouldn’t do that.”

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in January 2002 announced a wide-ranging effort to revamp the curriculum, financing and oversight of the schools, many of which were formed because the officially sanctioned local public school was either weak or nonexistent.

Mrs. Jalal became Mr. Musharraf’s point woman in the campaign, instantly putting her on the ideological front lines in the global war on terror.

During a brief visit to Washington this week, she had private talks with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Wolfowitz, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Christina Rocca, and senior members of Congress — an unusually high-powered lineup for a visiting education minister.

In an interview at the residence of Pakistan’s ambassador yesterday, she said the campaign against extremist madrassas “has raised a lot of sensitivities in our country.”

Powerful Islamic educational boards, which had grown used to operating with little or no government oversight of their schools, have accused the Musharraf government of bowing to U.S. pressure in the crackdown.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic party with branches across Central and South Asia, charged in a pamphlet last year that “the colonialists are changing Pakistan’s own education system so that Pakistani youth conform to colonialist standards.”

Asked about “tangible progress” since Gen. Musharraf announced the reform program, Mrs. Jalal said the government already has registered and “mainstreamed” some 1,200 madrassas in less than two years, with a $100 million, three-year program on target to bring in another 8,000 schools.

She said the government is not trying to drive the madrassas out of business.

But it is determined to ensure that students in the schools get a balanced curriculum including math, science and computer studies, that questionable funding sources are cut off, and that there is local oversight and regulation on a continuing basis.

The government is providing cash subsidies to the schools that reform, she said, even though that cuts into the national budget to improve public schools and universities.

Mrs. Jalal said that only 2 percent to 3 percent of the madrassas pose political problems, not so much for their Islamic-centered programs but because they are used as recruiting centers for the fundamentalist groups that finance them.

The education minister estimated that there were some 15,000 to 20,000 madrassas across the country — only about half of which are even registered with the Islamic educational foundations. The total number of students is about 1.5 million.

The madrassas typically offer free room, board and supplies to students, a key part of their appeal in some of Pakistan’s remote and impoverished areas.

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