International students and Pakistan’s conservative madrassas
It is no great secret that the most extreme madrassas of Pakistan and Afghanistan mark the front line of the battle against radicalization of young Muslims and the potential to stem the flow of ready recruits for the insurgent groups. A recent development though is an increase in the thousands of foreigners who have flocked to such conservative Islamic schools in Pakistan despite attempts by the government to stop such activities. Pakistan and foreign governments consider the international students a potential security threat. The students could export extremism back to their own countries, or stay and fight in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. The history of these madrassas is closely linked to to the history of conflict.
“We are concerned, but what can we do?” said an official from one Southeast Asian embassy in Pakistan who asked for anonymity because he did not want to upset his hosts. “We can’t stop people from traveling…It is their constitutional right.”
Officials are concerned in general about foreigners coming to Pakistan for training in militancy. Most recently, five young American Muslims were arrested after meeting with representatives of an al-Qaida linked group and asking for training, a Pakistani law enforcement official said Thursday…
Anas bin Saleem, a 12-year-old American, spends seven hours a day sitting cross-legged on the floor memorizing the Quran. In Anas’ school, Jamia Binoria, several hundred students from 29 countries live alongside 5,000 Pakistani pupils, teachers said. Binoria is one of the largest schools in the country and one of at least four schools in Karachi with foreign students on its books.
Anas says he’s not taught militant Islam at Binoria. But clerics firmly endorse suicide bombings and jihad against Western troops in Afghanistan on the school Web site, and Anas admits he is fed up with anti-American barbs from teachers and pupils.
“I get it like every second,” says Anas, who left Louisiana last year with his Pakistani-born mother, barely spoke the national language when he arrived in Pakistan and misses Hannah Montana. “I’m like shut up and don’t talk like that.”
Only a handful of the foreign students are Westerners; most are Asians and Africans in the late teens or early 20s. Many come to Pakistan for a cheap Islamic education, albeit a conservative one, part of a tradition of Muslims traveling to gain knowledge that goes back centuries.
Many of the maddrassas in that region are allegedly Saudi funded, a legacy of US involvement. These establishments, in part, led to the creation of Al Qaeda. When the US wanted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan thwarted, it needed to recruit a new generation of fighters. Saudi funded and helped to create madrassas in the area. In Afghanistan, these madrassas were used as de facto recruiting centers to indoctrinate young men eventually turned them into fighters for the Northern Alliance, which formed an integral part of the force that subsequently defeated the Soviets.
The madrassas are appealing to a certain sector of the Islamic world. As regional commentator, Valis Nasr describes it:
“They are recruited from among the lower classes and lower-middle classes. In the Afghan-Pakistan arena, there are members of Pashtun tribes who enroll in these madrassas. There are peasant children from the peasant backgrounds. And occasionally there are also lower middle-class children they are very able to recruit among people in Pakistan particularly who don’t have any access to any other kind of schooling. …That’s why the ideology that’s propagated by these schools is so significant in shaping minds in the Muslim world. So if regular schooling is not schooling people, and schools that propagate fanaticism are schooling people, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what would be the impact on society.”
This model has been emulated now throughout the region, and they are now endemic through all parts of the Muslim world. Nasr comments on the spread of maddrassas:
“…They’ve been spreading throughout Central Asia, but there have been Central Asian students, Filipino students, Indonesian students, Nigerian students, Arab students, thanks to scholarship funding provided from Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, that have been going to these schools… The argument I make is that there is an undercurrent of terror and fanaticism that go hand in hand in the Afghanistan-Pakistan arc, and extend all the way to Uzbekistan. And you can see reflections of it in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Indonesia, in the Philippines. For instance, in one madrassa in Pakistan, I interviewed 70 Malaysian and Thai students who are being educated sideby side with students who went on to the Afghan war and the like. These people return to their countries, and then we see the results in a short while. … At best, they become hot-headed preachers in mosques that encourage fighting Christians in Nigeria or in Indonesia. And in a worst case, they actually recruit or participate in terror acts. In order to have terrorists, in order to have supporters for terrorists, in order to have people who are willing to interpret religion in violent ways, in order to have people who are willing to legitimate crashing yourself into a building and killing 5,000 innocent people, you need particular interpretations of Islam. Those interpretations of Islam are being propagated out of schools that receive organizational and financial funding from Saudi Arabia. In fact, I would push it further: that these schools would not have existed without Saudi funding. They would not have proliferated across Pakistan and India and Afghanistan without Saudi funding. They would not have had the kind of prowess that they have without Saudi funding, and they would not have trained as many people without Saudi funding.”
The duality of the Saudi relationship of the West is perhaps best described by Richard Holbrooke now the Special envoy but at the times of this comment an ex-US Ambassador to the UN. Holbrooke could be brutality honest when he was in private life, now back in the fray his comments are less open. Holbrooke said:
“I think that one of the tragedies of this story is that the Saudi Arabians exported their problem by financing the schools, the madrassas, all through the Islamic world. I saw this in Uzbekistan a few years after Uzbekistan got out of the Soviet Union, became an independent state in cities like Tashkent and Samarkand, where the Saudis were funding these schools teaching Koranic studies and creating a class of people for whom education was simply the Holy Book, the Koran. … What happened here was that the Saudi Arabian government had two wings. The mainland Saudi leadership went into financial issues, defense issues, and they controlled the elite establishment in order to purchase support. From the more fundamentalist religious groups, they gave certain other ministries, the religious ministries, education ministries, to more fundamentalist Islam leaders. And that’s how the split occurred. So the Saudi government was, to a certain extent, pursuing internally inconsistent policies throughout this period — reaching out to the West with sophisticated, well educated, internationally minded leaders like its foreign minister, like its ambassador in Washington and others. At the same time, it was funding with this vast oil revenue a different set of efforts: education, which was narrowly based in the Koran. …”