- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

LAHORE, Pakistan | Javed Khan wanted to talk to Americans. So when school ended last summer, he applied to work at a call center.

The lanky 21-year-old has never owned a TV or traveled outside Pakistan. But his English was good enough to get the job, thanks to language courses offered by the madrassa, or Islamic religious seminary, where he has lived and studied for the past 10 years.

Three months after starting the job, though, the same question was on his mind: “Is it really true,” he said, hesitating, “that people in America don’t like us?”

Since Sept. 11, Pakistani madrassas have come to be viewed with deep suspicion in the West. Media reports tying former students to terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe, and to militant groups operating in Afghanistan, have fed the perception they are incubators for extremism that spur young Muslims to commit acts of violence in the name of God.

Under pressure, President Pervez Musharraf pledged in June 2002 to overhaul thousands of such schools and bring greater oversight. Last year, the U.S. put up $83 million toward this end. But Mr. Musharraf’s efforts were half-hearted, and resistance was strong, according to analysts and current state officials.

The failure was illustrated in July 2007 during the Red Mosque siege in the heart of Islamabad, the capital, when government forces stormed an adjoining madrassa complex that harbored militants who for months had aggressively challenged the state’s authority right under its nose.

At least 154 people died and another 50 militants were captured after fierce fighting. Today, a barren patch of gravel and weeds marks the spot.

Such hostility is hard to reconcile with the atmosphere of Jamia Naimia in Lahore, one of the country’s largest Sunni Muslim madrassas. Wander into its cool marble courtyard, and boys of all ages in filigreed-lace prayer caps smile at the outsider. Others sit crossed-legged on Afghan carpets, absorbed in religious texts.

Muhammad Sarfraz Naimi, the madrassa’s headmaster, says the actions of a small minority have given a bad name to Islam and a centuries-old educational system that can interface with a modern world.

A week earlier, he and a body of respected Islamic clerics publicly declared a fatwa, or ruling, that condemned suicide bombing as “un-Islamic.” He said, moreover, that it’s the duty of the government to “find and crush” madrassas that preach violence.

Most of the 1,700 students at the school he runs are full-time boarders from poor rural areas. Their parents send them at a young age as much to learn about Islam as to enjoy free meals and board, which he says are almost entirely funded by community donations.

Although a mastery of the Koran and Islamic law is paramount, the madrassa is also one of the few that has conformed to a state-sponsored syllabus of math, science and English that equips students to be competitive job-seekers if they choose to be after graduation.

“We are preparing our students for every field of life,” Mr. Naimi said over a cup of sweet tea in the school’s vaulted library. “They can become engineers or imams.”

Across town at the Jamia Dar-ul-Uloom madrassa where Javed is enrolled, faculty members insist their broad academic rigor, also accredited by the government, puts them in league with the best secular schools.

Their top student, Azeem Ullah, 19, who came from a village in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as a child, recently placed first in his age group out of more than 100,000 students throughout Punjab province on a comprehensive humanities exam.

He hopes to work one day for the provincial government’s tax department.

Ahmad Siddiqui, the school’s snow-bearded chief administrator, says teachers promote tolerance above any political alignments, allowing students to form their own opinions independently.

In one of the reading rooms, he opens a textbook with selections from U.S. writers Ray Bradbury and Langston Hughes, as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. A special collections room next door houses an 1819 edition John Brown Bible in a glass case. It sits next to a handwritten Koran authored by Mr. Siddiqui’s grandfather.

Observers counter that while some Pakistani madrassas have expanded studies beyond the Koran to cultivate balance, there is still a basic mistrust that has stalled state-sponsored reforms, especially in lawless tribal areas.

Out of some 150,000 schools nationwide, roughly 15,000 are bona fide madrassas. Of these, only 1,000 or so have adopted the standardized curriculum, according to Fayyaz Hussein, acting spokesman for the ministry of education. Those schools are concentrated in provinces like Punjab and Sindh where the state’s writ has some force, he said.

Mr. Siddiqui blames the Musharraf regime for the worsening security that now has made it even more difficult for the government to expand reforms, leaving a disconnect that militants are likely to exploit.

Khalid Rahman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad, says that in conservative parts of the country such as the tribal areas and Balochistan, religious institutions generally see prescribed reforms as “out of context” with Islam and the traditional lifestyle.

This does not necessarily mean they are extremists, but because madrassas in these areas tend to play a dominant role in the development of children with limited exposure beyond school walls, it is “easier for them to be converted to any kind of [violent] venture” if influential figures are so inclined.

Deaths from U.S. air strikes are a case in point.

The Oct. 30, 2006, bombing of a madrassa near the Afghan border in Bajaur agency that allegedly killed 80 militants sparked nationwide protests. The area has since become a hotbed of Taliban and al Qaeda activity in the region.

In the past two months, madrassas linked to Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani in North Waziristan have also been targeted by unmanned drones.

Asked about the ongoing attacks, students in Lahore said they harbor no ill will toward Americans but are angry with the government.

“We are only against their policies that have hurt Muslims,” said Akbar Syed, 21, a native of NWFP. “The U.S. wants to treat us like slaves here, when they should treat us like friends.”

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