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Pakistan’s Islamic Schools Fill Void, but Fuel Militancy



May 4, 2009



MOHRI PUR, Pakistan — The elementary school in this poor village is easy to mistake for a barn. It has a dirt floor and no lights, and crows swoop through its glassless windows. Class size recently hit 140, spilling students into the courtyard.


But if the state has forgotten the children here, the mullahs have not. With public education in a shambles, Pakistan’s poorest families have turned to madrasas, or Islamic schools, that feed and house the children while pushing a more militant brand of Islam than was traditional here.


The concentration of madrasas here in southern Punjab has become an urgent concern in the face of Pakistan’s expanding insurgency. The schools offer almost no instruction beyond the memorizing of the Koran, creating a widening pool of young minds that are sympathetic to militancy.


In an analysis of the profiles of suicide bombers who have struck in Punjab, the Punjab police said more than two-thirds had attended madrasas.


“We are at the beginning of a great storm that is about to sweep the country,” said Ibn Abduh Rehman, who directs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization. “It’s red alert for Pakistan.”


President Obama said in a news conference last week that he was “gravely concerned” about the situation in Pakistan, not least because the government did not “seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services: schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of the people.”


He has asked Congress to more than triple assistance to Pakistan for nonmilitary purposes, including education. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has given Pakistan a total of $680 million in nonmilitary aid, according to the State Department, far lower than the $1 billion a year for the military.


But education has never been a priority here, and even Pakistan’s current plan to double education spending next year might collapse as have past efforts, which were thwarted by sluggish bureaucracies, unstable governments and a lack of commitment by Pakistan’s governing elite to the poor.


“This is a state that never took education seriously,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution. “I’m very pessimistic about whether the educational system can or will be reformed.”


Pakistani families have long turned to madrasas, and the religious schools make up a relatively small minority. But even for the majority who attend public school, learning has an Islamic bent. The national curriculum was Islamized during the 1980s under Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, a military ruler who promoted Pakistan’s Islamic identity as a way to bind its patchwork of tribes, ethnicities and languages.


Literacy in Pakistan has grown from barely 20 percent at independence 61 years ago, and the government recently improved the curriculum and reduced its emphasis on Islam.


Failures in Education


But even today, only about half of Pakistanis can read and write, far below the proportion in countries with similar per-capita income, like Vietnam. One in three school-age Pakistani children does not attend school, and of those who do, a third drop out by fifth grade, according to Unesco. Girls’ enrollment is among the lowest in the world, lagging behind Ethiopia and Yemen.


“Education in Pakistan was left to the dogs,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad who is an outspoken critic of the government’s failure to stand up to spreading Islamic militancy.


This impoverished expanse of rural southern Punjab, where the Taliban have begun making inroads with the help of local militant groups, has one of the highest concentrations of madrasas in the country.


Of the more than 12,000 madrasas registered in Pakistan, about half are in Punjab. Experts estimate the numbers are higher: when the state tried to count them in 2005, a fifth of the areas in this province refused to register.


Though madrasas make up only about 7 percent of primary schools in Pakistan, their influence is amplified by the inadequacy of public education and the innate religiosity of the countryside, where two-thirds of people live.


The public elementary school for boys in this village is the very picture of the generations of neglect that have left many poor Pakistanis feeling abandoned by their government.


Shaukat Ali, 40, a tall man with an earnest manner who teaches fifth grade, said he had asked everyone for help with financing, including government officials and army officers. A television channel even did a report. “The result,” he said, “was zero.”


A government official responsible for monitoring schools in the area, Muhamed Aijaz Anjum, said he was familiar with the school’s plight. But he has no car or office, and his annual travel allowance is less than $200; he said he was helpless to do anything about it.


With few avenues for advancement in what remains a feudal society, many poor Pakistanis do not believe education will improve their lives. The dropout rate reflects that.


One of Mr. Ali’s best students, Muhamed Arshad Ali, was offered a state scholarship to continue after the fifth grade. His parents would not let him accept. He quit and took up work ironing pants for about 200 rupees a day, or $2.50.


“Many poor people think salaried jobs are only for rich people,” Mr. Ali said. “They don’t believe in the end result of education.”


Safety Net From Despair


In Punjab, the country’s most populous province, the despair and neglect have opened a space that religious schools have filled.


“Madrasas have been mushrooming,” said Zobaida Jalal, a member of Parliament and former education minister.


The phenomenon began in the 1980s, when General Zia gave madrasas money and land in an American-supported policy to help Islamic fighters against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.


The Islamic schools are also seen as employment opportunities. “When someone doesn’t see a way ahead for himself, he builds a mosque and sits in it,” said Jan Sher, whose village in southwestern Punjab, Shadan Lund, has become a militant stronghold, with madrasas now outnumbering public schools. Poverty has also helped expand enrollment in madrasas, which serve as a safety net by housing and feeding poor children.


“How can someone who earns 200 rupees a day afford expenses for five children?” asked Hafeezur Rehman, a caretaker in the Jamia Sadiqqia Taleemul Koran madrasa in Multan, the main city in south Punjab. The school houses and feeds 73 boys from poor villages.


Former President Pervez Musharraf tried to regulate the madrasas, offering financial incentives if they would add general subjects. But after taking the money, many refused to allow monitoring. “The madrasa reform project failed,” said Javed Ashraf Qazi, a retired general who served as education minister at the time.


Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, says he is acutely aware of the problem and is trying a different approach, recently setting aside $75 million to build free model schools in 80 locations close to large madrasas, a tactic General Qazi had also proposed.


In the district that includes Mohri Pur, a mud-walled village of about 6,000 where farmers drive on dirt roads in tractors and donkey carts piled high with sticks and grasses, there are an estimated 200 madrasas, one-third the number of public schools, said Mr. Anjum, the education official.


Nonreligious private schools have also sprouted since the 1990s. They have better student-teacher ratios, but only the most exclusive — out of reach of most middle-class Pakistanis — offer a rigorous, modern education. Mr. Ali, the fifth-grade teacher, says the madrasas have changed Mohri Pur. They are Deobandi, adherents of an ultra-Orthodox Sunni school of thought that opposes music and festivals, which are central aspects of Sufism, a tolerant form of Islam that is traditional here.


There were no madrasas in Mohri Pur in the late 1980s, when Mr. Ali began teaching. Now there are at least five. Most are affiliated with a branch in the neighboring town of Kabirwala of Darul Uloom, a powerful Deobandi seminary founded in 1952, and whose leaders in other parts of Pakistan have links to the Taliban.


Fear and Respect


Several local residents said they believed the Kabirwala seminary was dangerous. Some of its members were involved in sectarian violence against Shiites in the 1990s, they said.


Even if the madrasas do not make militants, they create a worldview that makes militancy possible. “The mindset wants to stop music, girls’ schools and festivals,” said Salman Abid, a social researcher in southern Punjab. “Their message is that this is not real life. Real life comes later” — after death.


On a recent Thursday, the Kabirwala seminary was buzzing with activity. Officials showed rooms of boys crouched over Korans, reading and rocking. A full kitchen had an industrial-size bread oven. Flowers adorned walkways. The foundation for a new dormitory had been broken.


There was also a girls’ section, with its own entrance, where hundreds of young women chanted in unison after directions from a male voice that came from behind a curtain. “We have a passion for this work,” said Seraj ul-Haq, a computer teacher who is part of the family that founded the seminary. Teachers preach restrictions. February’s newsletter set out a list of taboos: Valentine’s Day. Music. Urban women “wearing imported perfume.” Talking about women’s rights.


Suicide bombings were neither encouraged nor condemned.


The ideology may be rigid, but it offers the promise of respect, a powerful draw for lower-class young men.


Abed Omar, 24, had little religious education before he was inspired by a sermon at the seminary last year. Better educated than most, he began to work in his family’s sweets shop.


Restless and unfulfilled, he joined a conservative Islamic group, paying about $625 to travel with them around the country for four months on a preaching tour. The group, Tablighi Jamaat, taught him that Islam forbids music and speaking with women. (He would speak to this reporter only through a male colleague.) American officials suspect that the group is a steppingstone to the Taliban. Pakistani officials say it is peaceful.


Now, when Mr. Omar visits his friends, “they turn off their tape players and give me their seat,” he said, a smile lifting his face, which, in the practice of some conservative Islamists, has a bushy beard but no mustache.


He is frustrated by a lack of opportunity and at how much of Pakistan’s bureaucracy requires political connections, which he does not have. “There is no merit,” he said. His faith gives him hope. “I want to make everyone a preacher of Islam,” Mr. Omar said brightly, eating honey-soaked fritters in his family’s shop.


He knows about 100 people in his town who have done a four-month tour like his. As for those who sign up for less, he said “they are countless.”


Waqar Gillani contributed reporting from Mohri Pur and Lahore, Pakistan.

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