Afghanistan's Taliban studied in the madrasahs-the Islamist religious schools-of Pakistan, where some 1.75 million students are currently preparing to fight for Islam around the world.
It was hard to imagine that the smiling children playing a quick game of cricket on a rooftop courtyard in the heart of Pakistan's ancient cultural capital of Lahore were learning to be killers.
The head of their madrasah (religious school), a portly man with a white turban and white Pakistani clothing, had invited me to see for myself how his students were treated and what they had learned. So I'd climbed some steps in the Khuddamuddin madrasah, one of perhaps 7,000 such religious schools in Pakistan, and found the boys at play, taking a break from classes.
In a few moments chatting with them, I quickly learned that their major topic of study was jihad, or holy war. The nearly 2,000 students expect to fight infidels in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Palestine, or Indian Kashmir once they complete their studies at the madrasah, located inside the walls of the old city of Lahore.
This school and others like it have prospered in recent years, in part because of the failure of the state-run educational system. In Pakistan, the illiteracy rate among adults is estimated at 70 percent.
About 1.75 million students are enrolled in the schools, though it is not clear how many of the academies are devoted to preparing their students for jihad. Some may focus only on religious studies. It is certain, however, that each time the repressive Islamic Taliban regime in Afghanistan needs to mount a spring offensive against its rebel opponents, tens of thousands of students from Pakistani madrasahs pour over the border in trucks to join the jihad, according to reports in the Jane's defense publications. Thus, the system of madrasahs has become a hatchery for tens of thousands of Islamic militants who have spread conflict around the world. Incidents in the Philippines, Indonesia, Russia, Central Asia, and at New York's World Trade Center have all been linked to graduates of the madrasahs. Indeed, Pakistan is terrorism's fertile garden.
Khuddamuddin is run by Mohammed Ajmal Qadri, leader of one of the three branches of the fundamentalist Jamiat Ulema Islam party, who told me that nearly 13,000 trained jihad fighters have passed through his school. At least 2,000 of them were in or on their way to Indian-held Kashmir.
Converting the World to Islam
Madri, polite and well spoken in the British-accented English of South Asia, offered an American guest tea and then calmly disclosed that the modern concepts of tolerance and cultural understanding have not made inroads into his thinking.
"Eventually, all people must become Muslim, including the Christians and Jews of the United States," he said in an interview. "The world has to go the way we want. It's our divine right to lead humanity." He apologized for a lack of time to spend with a visitor, saying he was preparing for yet another of his frequent visits to the United States. There, he preaches in the hundreds of new mosques built in the last decade by Muslim immigrants and raises money for his school--where he teaches his children to kill those who stand in the path of Islamic dominance in the world.
Up on the stone rooftop courtyard of his 110-year-old school, the students were taking advantage of a free period to hit a cricket ball, run, and wrestle like children anywhere in the world. But one slightly built boy explained how he and his classmates were being directed toward a life of violent struggle.
"Most kids here go for jihad, and I will too, God willing," said 14-year-old Obeidulla Anwer, speaking in Urdu through a translator. "Jihad is to fight for Islam and the pride of Islam."
Like most of his classmates, he will leave the school at about age 18 and go to a military training camp in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, Afghanistan, or some other secret location. After that training, he said, "We go to fight in Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, Afghanistan."
Asked whether he was prepared to hurt or kill, the delicate, dark boy said: "I will hurt those who are enemies of Islam. And I know that I could be hurt or killed."
The chances that Obeidulla will die violently are high. A 23-year-old fighter with another Islamic militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, said that five of the eight young men in his squad had died during his 18 months of fighting against Indian troops in Kashmir, where an estimated 30,000 people have died in civil strife since 1989.
Obeidulla was asked how he would recognize the enemies of Islam. "If I greet them with 'Salam Aleikum' and they won't say it back," he answered.
The boy was asked: "Since most Americans do not know Arabic and cannot know how to respond to the traditional Muslim greeting, are they enemies of Islam?" The boy looked confused. "I don't know," he said, looking expectantly at his hovering teachers, who also appeared confused by the question. Asked directly whether all non-Muslims were anti-Muslim, he did not need to check with his teachers. "No," he said firmly.
The school is preparing Obeidulla and his classmates for the hard life of soldiers with an experience that provides little comfort or privacy. The children all sleep on the floor of the school's mosque in sleeping bags, which they roll up each morning. They rise at 3:00 a.m. for study and prayers with a break for play around 4:30 a.m. At 7:30, they have breakfast and then study until 11:00, when they sleep for two hours. They pray, study, have lunch, pray, study, and pray again until dinner at 9:30 p.m., after which they go to the mosque to sleep. They have no room or even a bed of their own.
Why the Madrasahs Thrive
Parents choose this hard life for their children for a variety of reasons, with religious conviction and the poverty of village life both playing major roles.
Religion dominates life in Pakistan, where the national airline begins its flights with a reading from the Qur'an or a prayer. Politicians, even those educated in London or Boston and living apparently Westernized lives, vie in calling for stricter Islamic laws.
Poverty is the other goad. A half-hour drive from Lahore and just a stone's throw from the Indian border crossing at Wagha, farmer Mohammed Shaffi explained why his 13-year-old son attends the local madrasah and not a public school. In the madrasah--many are funded by donations from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations or groups in wealthy countries--he memorizes the Qur'an in Arabic, which he cannot understand. But he is not being taught to read and write the national language, Urdu.
"How can a poor man educate his son?" asked Shaffi, leaning for a moment over the mud wall he was building around his tiny rice paddy in the village of Dayal, about 30 miles southeast of Lahore. "Even if the school is free, the books are not. And the paper."
Shaffi, whose younger son was playing nearby stark naked, did not even mention the cost of school clothes. As he spoke, a herd of cows ambled by his naked child, who scratched at the muddy earth with a sharp stick. Another son, 13-year-old Maratab Ali Shaffi, wore a filthy, torn pair of shorts as he helped his mother and father pack mud upon a brick wall to increase its height.
The farmer said it was too early to make a decision about letting the boy go and join a jihad. But with the drumbeat of resurgent Islam in the air and hopes of a good job slim for an illiterate youth from the countryside, jihad is not an unlikely choice.
The family has two acres of land, on which six-inch-tall rice plants waved above the flooded paddies. They have electricity but can afford only two lightbulbs. They have no radio or television. No one in the family can read or write. The local madrasah, by contrast, will provide Maratab a free daily meal and sometimes a free shirt.
In Lahore, Qadri said he is proud that his school is able to direct youths like Maratab into holy war in places like Chechnya and Kashmir. But it is America that seems to be his ultimate target, one he hopes to defeat through converting its people to Islam.
"There are now over 3,000 mosques and madrasahs in America, and they are a divine gift for Americans. American civilization is a Monica Lewinsky civilization," he said with a hearty laugh. "It is empty and hollow from inside. Islam is the only cultural system that could bear the load of life for the times to come."
He was similarly dismissive of Hinduism, the religion of about 900 million people in neighboring India, describing it as nothing more than a system "of fashions and traditions."
Roots of Anti-U.S. Feeling
Madri said he would defy attempts by Pakistan's military government to regulate the madrasahs, beginning with a requirement that they report on the numbers and names of students and teachers, types of facilities, educational programs, and financial details.
The government, stung by charges from U.S. officials that it allows Islamic terrorism to breed under the guise of religious education, has also called for the schools to begin offering practical subjects such as math and science as well as memorization of the Qur'an. In addition, the government is asking the schools to report to local police the names of any foreign students and to list any religious rulings (fatwas) they issue "We believe our rules are perfect, and we will not allow any ruler, military, or so-called elected representatives to change them," Qadri said. The News, an English-language national newspaper, quoted several madrasah heads claiming the data were being collected on the instructions of anti-Islamic Western forces, particularly the United States and Israel. While such claims seem far-fetched to better-educated Pakistanis, they are widely believed by others. Many Pakistanis already feel abandoned by the West since U.S.-backed rebels expelled the Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving their country to cope with a huge refugee problem.
Pakistanis also feel it is unfair to blame them for supporting terrorism when veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan turn to jihad in Kashmir or Chechnya.
Americans are particularly angry with Pakistan for helping the Taliban gain power in Afghanistan in 1995. Islamabad's military helped organize a guerrilla force from the Islamic students in Pakistani madrasahs. They were at first well received in Afghanistan, because they offered hope of ending the five years of bloody warlordism that had followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1990. But once the Taliban secured control over 90 percent of Afghanistan, it imposed draconian Islamic rule--preventing women from working, ordering all men to wear beards and turbans, banning music and television, and imposing harsh punishments such as amputation and stoning for theft or adultery.
The Taliban also allowed accused Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden to remain in Afghanistan despite a U.S. and UN demand for him to stand trial on charges of bombing two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, as well as other anti-American attacks.
Pakistani diplomats say they cannot control the Taliban even if Pakistan is the only country that recognizes the Kabul regime. The United States keeps asking Pakistan to pressure the Afghans to hand over bin Laden, and the Pakistanis say they are unable to do so.
As Pakistan, once a staunch U.S. Cold War ally against the Soviet Union, slides into Islamist extremism, continued military control, and economic chaos, its rival to the east, India, has become America's good friend. India's half-century of democracy has long been admired in America and, since 1990, it has abandoned its socialist central planning and anti-Western rhetoric. India's software boom, along with the $60 billion a year earned by Indian Americans in California's Silicon Valley, has pushed Washington closer to New Delhi--further angering and isolating Pakistan.
A group of Pakistani journalists recently asked some American journalists why their country gets such bad press in the United States. But when queried about Pakistan's Islamic revival, tolerance of extremism, lack of schools for the poor, military control, and other problems, the Pakistani journalists ruefully agreed it was all true.
The root of everything, say several analysts, is that the well-educated leaders of the country have failed to create a system of adequate public education for Pakistan's 140 million people. Without that, parents increasingly turn to the madrasahs, where the fiery mix of fundamentalism and intolerance is creating cannon fodder for future religious wars around the world.
Ben Barber is State Department correspondent for the Washington Times.