The crusade for the spirit

Print edition : August 26, 2005

At a madrassa in Islamabad. - ANJUM NAVEED/AP

Expert studies point to Pakistani madrassas as breeding grounds of terror. The question is what prevents President Musharraf from acting against them.


IN the previous issue I had mentioned the nexus between madrassas in Pakistan and the ideology of terror that these institutions seem to infuse into ardent young fanatics eager to make the supreme sacrifice for what they believe to be holy and just. It becomes necessary to visit this issue again, given the incidents in Britain, followed now by the terrible bombing in Sharm-al-Shaikh, which, incidentally, seems to have fallen off the map for most of our Western-oriented media. And it is necessary for another reason, something I barely mentioned earlier - the fact that the madrassas in India are not considered to be doing anything remotely similar to what appears to be going on in some of the madrassas in Pakistan.

I had related, earlier, the account given to me by a senior police officer of how insurgency took root in Kashmir, how the virtual collapse of the school system under the weight of inefficiency and corruption made it easy for madrassas to fill the breach. They did, and they did give a focus to the general resentment seething in the minds of the young owing to the brazen misgovernance, nepotism and thievery in high places so prevalent at the time. But they did not, interestingly enough, preach violence and hatred.

In a paper written a few years ago, B. Raman, who was formerly an Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat of the Government of India, and is a specialist in intelligence and counter-terrorism, said that "India has 35,000 madrassas as compared to 8,000 only in Pakistan. Whereas the madrassas in Pakistan have become centres of concern to counter-terrorism experts because of their role in promoting fanaticism and terrorism, those of India have not so far come to the adverse notice of international counter-terrorism experts."

That India's madrassas are far removed from such activities is further borne out by one telling example: in the remote areas between India and Nepal, where the security agencies are very suspicious indeed of all madrassas and have been accused of systematic harassment of Muslims who live in those areas, there is one madrassa, Al-Farooq, which has Hindu and Muslim students. It has been reported to have high educational standards, and is managed by some local Muslims. The principal, Muhammad Isa, says that they do not mind taking in students from any community, "so long as they conform to our educational standards". This would no doubt be heresy across the border.

And this is, if one were to take a straw poll in the streets, the perception of ordinary people wherever madrassas exist. One has, naturally, to exclude the fanatics of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) from this general impression; but then, one is talking of ordinary people, normal people with everyday, practical views. They look on these as educational institutions where Muslim boys, (and girls in separate madrassas) are educated. What Raman says in his paper in borne out by another document prepared in February this year for the United States Congress by Christopher Blanchard, an analyst in West Asian affairs. In that document, titled Islamic Religious Schools - Madrasas: Background he specifically homes in on Pakistan as a country where some madrassas are a potential safe haven for terrorists. He puts the number of madrassas in Pakistan at 10,000, higher than the number stated by Raman, but in identifying other countries where madrassas may be engaged in similar activities he mentions Indonesia and Qatar; India, with a much larger Muslim population and many thousand more madrassas than Pakistan, is mentioned nowhere in his paper.

What happened, then, to the work being done in Kashmir by the madrassas that I had been told was fairly widespread up to the 1990s? One answer is provided by Raman in his paper and one which is well known throughout the Valley. This is the chain of schools, which are free or charge affordable fees, run by the Army in areas where terrorism was rampant during that period. Raman points out that "these schools have made such a name for the quality of their education that some religious clerics, who advise or force their followers to send their children to the madrassas, have been sending their own children to the Army-run schools. The government ensures that no embarrassment is caused to them by resisting the temptation to publicise them."

India's systems of traditional education - the gurukuls, tols and madrassas - may, and indeed, do use an archaic pedagogic style, teaching students to learn by rote, for example, but whatever they do, they do not and have not moved into the darker waters of political issues and extreme means to counter perceived injustice and exploitation. Why have some of those in Pakistan and elsewhere done so? That is an enigma that may be resolved over time, but some answers are being sought right now.

ONE of the clearest is the casting about by the U.S. and other Western countries for ways of countering what they then saw as the irresistible wave of communism that swept over Southeast Asia - that is, over Vietnam and Cambodia, after China and then North Korea - and were very apprehensive of a similar tide sweeping across West Asia, which is extremely precious to them for its oil, more than anything else. They seem to have decided that ideology needed to be met with ideology and found a very promising ideology in Islam - not in its true form, but in the fanatical devotion to it among young men in the region.

Christopher Blanchard records this dispassionately in his paper. "In the 1980s", he writes, "madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan were allegedly boosted by an increase in financial support from the United States, European governments and Saudi Arabia, all of whom reportedly viewed these schools as recruiting grounds for the anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters. In the early 1990s, the Taliban movement was formed by Afghani Islamic clerics and students (talib means "student" in Arabic), many of whom were former mujahideen who had studied and trained in madrassas and who advocated a strict form of Islam similar to the Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia."

The Soviets, and the ideology that they stood for, collapsed; suddenly the funding by the U.S. and Western powers stopped. The only funding available was obviously from Saudi Arabia, and this seems to have gone to selected madrassas where, either from a sense of betrayal or something else, ardent young students were taught to fight non-believers, and, as Blanchard says, "stand against what they see as the moral depravity of the West. Other observers suggest that these schools are wholly unconcerned with religious scholarship and focussed solely on teaching violence" (emphasis added). It would require very skilled casuistry to establish that this violence is turned only westwards, and not east across the border.

If so much can be deduced and put down by a scholar in the U.S., surely Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf would know it all, and much more besides. The question that one needs to ask is, as I mentioned in my first essay, what is he doing about it? And what has prevented him from doing anything so far? One can, on this side of the border, see his dilemma, but that dilemma has to be resolved, and as he does so, as he declares he will, he must inevitably see the folly of pretending that other institutions given over to teaching violence and terror, like the training camps in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir do not exist. But much more than him, Western leaders need to end their pretence. All of them profess horror, and peer closely at Pakistan, studiously avoiding even a glance at the terrible violence next door. Terror does not come with specific addresses and zip codes; surely now they know that.

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