Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pakistan's Madrassas, Part 2

This article continues a line of inquiry begun in Part 1. If you have not already read Part 1, you may wish to do so now; however, this post is not a continuation of Part 1, though this post will be continued in subsequent posts.

In this post, we begin to review an article from Asia Times Online entitled Learning from Pakistan's madrassas by Kaushik Kapisthalam, from June 23, 2004.

In October 2003, a memo from the office of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld intended for his top military and civilian subordinates was leaked, perhaps deliberately, to US media. In the memo, Rumsfeld wondered: is the US capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against America? As things stand today, nowhere is that aspect of the "war on terror" more crucial than in Pakistan.

If it's a short war, count on military expertise and equipment -- and a U.S. victory. But, if it is a long war, demographics will be a factor, and could become the overriding factor, if the war goes on long enough.

The history

Islamic rule was introduced to the Indian sub-continent in the early 8th century when Arab warrior Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Sindh, in what is southeastern Pakistan today. But the earliest known madrassas (Seminaries) in north India were not recorded until the 13th century under the Turks. By the 14th century, Delhi alone had a thousand madrassas . In the 18th century, a curriculum known as the Dars-i-Nizamia, devised by Mullah Nizamuddin, became the standard syllabus. The curriculum was based on the Koran, memorizing it by rote, which was considered the highest scholastic achievement. However, this curriculum did not focus on violent jihad. In fact, the whole purpose of the Dars-i-Nizamia was to combine Islamic teachings with rational sciences to train the madrassa pupils to become lawyers, judges and administrators.

After the end of British rule and the partition of India in 1947, the madrassas in India and the newly created Islamic Republic of Pakistan took different courses. The Indian seminaries stayed true to their original mission of places of Islamic scholarship, while the Pakistani ones became progressively more intolerant and aggressive in the competition to exclusively define Pakistan's "Islamic" nature. There are currently five broad types of madrassas in Pakistan, with four of them belonging to the majority Sunni sect and one belonging to the Shi'ite minority. Among the Sunnis, there are the majority Barelvis, who are a moderate group who seek to be inclusive of local rituals and customs. Then there are seminaries run by the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is non-sectarian but tends to be very politically active.

In the context of extremism, the remaining two streams of madrassas are considered most important. The first one is the Deobandi school of thought, originating in the Indian town of Deoband, near New Delhi. The Deobandi movement has long sought to purify Islam by rejecting "un-Islamic" accretions to the faith and returning to the models established in the Koran. Then there are the Ahle-Hadith (followers of the way of the Prophet) who have a similar emphasis on "purifying" the faith as the Deobandis, but follow the Salafi religious jurisprudence (fiqh) as opposed to the Hanafi fiqh used by the Deobandis.

So, the Deobandis are comparable to the Wahhabis -- and the Deobandis are a significant group in the UK, due to cultural ties to the former empire.

Madrassas and jihad

Until the 1970s, Pakistani madrassas largely followed the Dars-i-Nizamia curriculum and its variants established in the 1700s in India. Even the Deobandi alteration of this curriculum focused on purification of faith for the purposes of knowledge, rather than militancy and jihad. All this changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. General Zia ul-Haq, who took power after a military coup in 1977, was an ardent Islamist. He started off with some ill-fated attempts at rushing through "Islamic law" within Pakistan. Zia's existing plans to turn Pakistan into an "Islamic" state gained urgency and a more fundamentalist tone after two major events - the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 10 years later.

One reason would be to establish that ideological barrier that we talked about in Part 1 -- not just to keep communism out, but to begin the ideological counterattack which ultimately resulted in freeing five Central Asia republics with Muslim populations from Soviet rule. Another reason is that the Deobandis have little use for the shi'ism of Iran.

The twin shocks also encouraged a new movement within the Deobandi madrassas , which sought to change the way Islam was taught to students. While it is true that many madrassas dropped secular subjects like mathematics and sciences in part or whole, what was more significant than the narrowing of the syllabus was the change in focus and interpretation in the teaching of the Koran and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), drawing on the incendiary combination of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi thinking developed under Saudi funding from places like the Islamic University of Medina, and propagated by other Saudi-controlled foundations, such as the World Muslim League.

In other words, the Deobandis, who were already comparable to the Wahhabis, now started actually comparing notes with the Wahhabis and cooperating with them.

The emphasis in madrassa curriculum was shifted almost entirely from the standard pillars of faith such as prayer, charity and pilgrimage to the obligation and rewards of violent jihad. The madrassas taught the young students that the world was divided into believers and unbelievers in a black and white setting. Jews, Hindus and Christians were portrayed as evil usurpers. The curriculum started emphasizing the need for Islamic warriors or jihadis to "liberate" regions dominated by unbelievers as well as "purify" Islamic nations in order to establish a single Islamic caliphate where pure Islam would be followed. The students were taught that the only means to achieving this Utopian state was by waging a near-perpetual war, pursued by any and all means against unbelievers as well as "impure" sects within Muslims. The era of the jihadi madrassas was born.

"The students were taught that the only means to achieving this Utopian state was by waging a near-perpetual war, pursued by any and all means against unbelievers as well as "impure" sects within Muslims. The era of the jihadi madrassas was born."

Jihad as a policy tool

During the 1980s, radical Pakistani madrassas pumped out thousands of Afghan foot soldiers for the US and Saudi-funded jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. They also helped bind the independent-minded Pashtun tribesmen closely to the Pakistani government for the first time in its history; easing the acute insecurity Pakistan had felt towards Afghanistan and the disputed border.

This border area is where the Taliban got their start, and this border area is where the Taliban retreated to in the face of the American-led onslaught in late 2001.

Recall also from our series entitled Genesis the impression everyone had that Pakistan was behind the Taliban.

Gulf petrodollars funded a sustained spurt in Deobandi madrassas not only in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border, but also in the port city of Karachi as well as rural Punjab. The Saudi and Gulf-Arab money also encouraged a Wahhabi jihad-centered curriculum. Prominent madrassas included the Darul Uloom Haqqania at Akora Khattak in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Binori madrassa in Karachi. The Haqqania boasts almost the entire Taliban leadership among its graduates, including Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, while the Binori madrassa, whose leader Mufti Shamzai was recently assassinated, was once talked about as a possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden, and is also reportedly the place where bin Laden met Mullah Omar to form the al-Qaeda-Taliban partnership.

After the Soviets were ousted from Afghanistan in 1989, instead of a slow-down, the rapid spread of jihadi madrassas in Pakistan continued unabated. The reasons for this are manifold. The first and most important reason is that Saudi money continued to flow to the madrassa system. The prestige and influence of the big madrassas encouraged wealthy Pakistanis to contribute more than ever before, sometimes as an expression of conviction, and sometimes as a means of ingratiating themselves with what had become major power players.

The jihad genie was out of the bottle, and fueled by Saudi petrodollars -- and more!

Stay tuned for Part 3!

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