Pakistan's madrassas: Terror factories?

What’s in the fine print?

The religious schools, commonly known as madrassas, that are dotted across Pakistan have a reputation for implanting the seeds of terrorism in fertile minds, reportedly producing as many as 10,000 jihadis a year. Though not all madrassas are terror factories, some do produce vintage killing machines whose aim is to wage war against the infidels. Will Pakistani government be able to deal with the radical elements?

Pakistan is sandwiched between two Titans at odds with each other, playing a primary school blame game. Heaven forbid, if any terrorist activity in America—after Fasial Shahzad’s failed attempt in Time Square—is traced conclusively back to Pakistan, the country will “face severe consequences,” as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently warned. Within Pakistan, suicide bombings by radical elements – a frequent occurrence that claims hundreds of innocent lives each year – are in retaliation for the government’s alliance with the United States, maintained despite continuous drone attacks in the Northern region. It’s a Catch-22 for Pakistanis at home and living abroad.

Even though I have yet to hear of a Pakistani masquerading as an Indian to land a job in America, one can’t underestimate the struggle of Pakistanis and other Muslims who have to defend their faith, Islamic garb and cultural norms, after the events of 9/11. As a result, some have removed themselves completely from the religious sphere, while others have become exclusivists. Stubble could be the in thing fashion-wise, but not for a Muslim male. Showing off cleavage is fine, but any Muslim woman with a niqab is abhorred and the headscarf—which can look rather fashionable—is looked down upon.

But after the 2007 siege at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, there is no denying that there are jihadi sanctuaries that must be dealt with. There are no online applications for militant training in Waziristan, but some radicalized madrassa-goers pass the jihadi aptitude test, where they are cherry picked for militant training.

In Pakistan, there has been a clear divide between secular and religious communities. The religious view the clean-shaven “brown sahibs” (anglicized Pakistanis) as having gone astray and dub them “Friday Muslims” to emphasize their lack of religious commitment.

The religious mullah was insignificant in society until the bearded men and burqa-clad women of madrassas connected to the Lal Masjid came face-to-face with the more secular mainstream. They became the self-appointed religious police who demanded that the government impose a strict interpretation of Islamic Law (sharia) in its entirety. They harassed women drivers sitting idle on traffic lights; they maltreated men getting haircuts and shaves at barber shops; and barged into shops to burn “vulgar” movies with songs and dances.

Ambassador Zafar Hilaly, a liberal commentator, views madrassa education as the agent provocateur of jihadi sentiment, as it turns impressionable youngsters against those who do not adhere to a Taliban-like ideology. “All of them (madrassa students) are being exposed to jihad,” said Hilaly. Surely, madrassas were key in producing “mujahideen” to fight the Soviets. As demonstrated by the Lal Masjid episode, madrassas most certainly became the breeding ground for militants.

I visited the prominent madrassa Darul ‘Uloom Karachi to explore if all madrassas are “terror factories” as is often claimed. One of the instructors who served as my tour guide for the evening met me at the bookshop on campus. Our first stop was the mosque, since it was close to sundown prayers. Here I saw a crowd of young men, hurdling around a speaker with a distinct platinum beard talking about the mercifulness of the Prophet Muhammad.

I walked around the main campus and spoke to several madrassa-goers between the ages of 16-23. Some students were from Karachi, others from rural areas, and a few that had come all the way from England. They were either majoring in Islamic jurisprudence or Prophetic traditions or Qu’ranic exegesis and most of them had memorized the Qu’ran at a madrassa.

And yet, having talked to many of these students in groups and one on one, having visited their dorm rooms and having sat through a lecture with them, I can say that they were far from being extremists. It was not the sanctuary of terrorists one would imagine a madrassa to be.

An expressive few conveyed their tribulations from getting news of “Muslims dying in vain” in the troubled Northern areas of Pakistan, Kashmir, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Their rhetoric, however, was significantly different from the Lal Masjid militants holding Kalashnikovs and shouting hate slogans against the Pakistani government and its Western allies. Most students that I spoke with linked the concept of jihad to an inner (spiritual) revolution as opposed to militant ideals while the quiet ones nodded their heads in consent.

The image of young boys sitting cross-legged in rows reading Qu’rans from right to left is common in all madrassas, regardless of its affiliation and mindset. Whether it’s a madrassa in Pakistan, the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, or an Upper West Side mosque in Manhattan, you’ll see some boys reciting verses after the instructor has read them out loud, highlighting the consonants and stresses. Some advanced readers will be rocking back and forth repeating the passages like parrots. But the root of the issue is who is running the madrassa and for what purpose.

It is evident that not all madrassas are singing the chorus of hate and jihad against the West. And not all jihadis are the offshoots of madrassas. So regardless of all the attention placed on madrassas, Pakistan still has a serious problem to contend with.

The Lal Masjid and its associated madrassas that terrorized the capital of Pakistan operated under the nose of that country’s ISI intelligence service headquarters. Arrests were made after the siege, but the head of the Lal Masjid, Abdul Aziz, who tried to flee wearing a burqa, was released on bail two years later, in April 2009. In other words, police and intelligence agencies are well aware of what’s going on, but the radical madrassas are untouched, primarily because of the fear of backlash and subsequent instability in the country.

It remains to be seen how long the Pakistani government can maintain the status quo. Noam Chomsky re-affirmed in a phone conversation recently that Pakistan is the epitome of a failed state that can only change by virtue of grassroots pressure from its people.

What is important is that Pakistanis – wherever they are – demand their government protect its citizens from foreign attacks and likewise eliminate the breeding grounds of terrorism within that are eating the roots of the country like termites and continue to radicalize its youth. This will require a targeted approach that recognizes that responsible madrassas will continue to play a part in Pakistani society, but also aiming to eliminate existing jihadi hotbeds and being watchful of mushrooming radical outlets.

Fahad Faruqui is a writer and broadcaster, based out of New York City. He can be reached via email on mff11[at], and you can connect with him on Twitter.

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