Pakistani schools put faith in Taliban

Allegiance: Afghanistan can count on many Islamic students to trust bin Laden and fight the United States.

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 27, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - During seventh-period class a few days ago at a madrassa, or Islamic school, here in southern Pakistan, a teacher selected a passage from the Quran for his senior students to ponder.

"Fight in the name of God," he wrote in Arabic with a blue marker across the board as a dozen or so students watched from their desks, their bare feet resting on the classroom's concrete floor. "Don't kill innocent people and God will be with you."

The selection of the passage was coincidental. It had nothing to do, the teachers said, with American military preparations for possible action against Pakistan's Muslim neighbor, Afghanistan. But the passage was a reminder of the connection between Pakistan's thousands of madrassas and the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalists who control 95 percent of Afghan territory. The madrassas have educated many Taliban leaders and provided thousands of foot soldiers for their cause.

When President Bush all but declared war on the Taliban last week, his words became a rallying cry for madrassas to defend Islam and the Afghan government their alumni helped build.

"The Taliban have created Islamic rule in Afghanistan. We are very proud of them," said Maulana Anwar-ul-Haq Haqqani, head of Khateeb Marqazi Jamay Mesjed, the oldest madrassa in Quetta. "We are not afraid of what Mr. Bush has said. If an attack happens, we will fight."

Ul-Haq estimates that since the mid-1990s his madrassa has contributed nearly a thousand soldiers to the Taliban. He, like other madrassa leaders, speaks with pride of local graduates. They include Mohammad Hassan, the governor of Afghanistan's Kandahar province. Connections with the Taliban are so valued that some madrassas exaggerate affiliations to enhance their reputations.

Madrassas in southwest Asia have educated young men for more than 300 years to be good Muslims and spread the word of Islam. After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that same year, some madrassas developed an overt, political mission: They began producing Muslim warriors who saw themselves as international defenders of the faith.

Pakistan's fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami party set up hundreds of madrassas along the Afghan border and trained Pakistanis and Afghan refugees.

The schools, supported by donations, are tuition-free and instrumental in educating poor children and developing fiercely loyal Islamic students. Graduates worked in law, medicine and business - and others became Islamic preachers, teachers and soldiers. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, many thousands reportedly crossed the border to join their fundamentalist revolution.

Some Pakistanis here in the province of Baluchistan and, farther north on the border, in the North-West Frontier province, have been alarmed by the stream of graduates to Afghanistan and worry about their possible return.

"Moderates from Baluchistan and the Frontier are afraid," said Mansoor Akbar Kundi, an associate professor of political science at the University of Baluchistan in Quetta. "We already have instability; they can bring more."

Darul-ul-Uluam Rahimiya, one of about 100 madrassas in Quetta, is framed by stark, jagged hills rising above the desert. It seems a quiet oasis of learning.

Most of the 250 students, 16 to 22 years old, sleep atop wool blankets on a concrete floor, six to each small dorm room. The curriculum is almost entirely Islamic: the Quran, Arabic grammar to read the Quran, the history of Islam and mathematics.

There are no courses in world history, science or foreign languages.

During the 1990s, 20 to 25 students a year went to Afghanistan to fight, according to the madrassa's leader, Mufti Gul Hassan.

Sahdullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, came to the madrassa from Afghanistan eight years ago for an Islamic education. Afghanistan, after more than 20 years of war, had neither the resources nor the political stability to meet educational demands.

Sahdullah split time between studying in Pakistan and fighting with the Taliban in his nation's enduring civil war. When he graduates next year, he said, he will work for Islam. He is skeptical of American arguments that it is targeting terrorism and not Islam.

"There is going to be an attack on Muslims by non-Muslims," he said, sitting on the madrassa's lawn. "Whatever Islam needs, if it is my head, I won't hesitate."

Links between the Taliban and these schools remain murky. Madrassa leaders and others say the schools do not provide military training. The Taliban don't recruit here either, they say, because they don't need to. Inculcated with a deep faith, students say, they head directly to Afghanistan, where they receive informal military training.

Some don't need much.

In Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, many young men are skilled in the use of Kalashnikov assault rifles. Students who need weapons training say it's easy to obtain.

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