Thu, Aug 21, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Pakistan's seminaries gain influx of Afghani youth

ACTION, REACTION Rising poverty, unemployment and growing anti-US sentiment over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made religious education ever more popular

REUTERS , QUETTA, PAKISTAN

Mohammad Sharif wants to join the Taliban's jihad, or holy war, against US-led forces in Afghanistan.

Sitting on a prayer mat on the mud floor of his madrassah, or religious seminary, in Pakistan's southwestern city of Quetta, the 18-year-old Sharif says he has been taking Koranic lessons for four years.

"During the Taliban government, I was not allowed to fight the jihad because my beard was not grown," he told reporters.

"But I will definitely go for jihad whenever I get an opportunity," said the black-turbaned Talib, or religious student, who now sports a thick beard.

Sharif is one of thousands of young Afghan refugees studying in madrassahs run by pro-Taliban Islamic clerics in southwestern Baluchistan province, of which Quetta is the capital.

In Quetta alone, there are about 7,000 madrassahs where up to 30,000 young men are studying the Koran, according to clerics.

Rising poverty, unemployment and growing anti-American sentiment over the US-led war in neighboring Afghanistan and in Iraq have added to the popularity of religious education in Baluchistan and Pakistan's other conservative regions.

"We have seen a rising trend for religious education in recent months," said Maulvi Abdul Qadir Luni, who runs an Islamic seminary on the outskirts of Quetta.

Luni said his madrassah provided food and accommodation for up to 150 students, about a sixth of whom are Afghan refugees.

"A large number of students of the madrassahs have hired private rooms in the city or are living in mosques because we cannot provide accommodation for them," he added.

Pakistan's religious seminaries served as breeding grounds for the Taliban in the early 1990s and provided volunteers for the hardline militia's war against the opposition Northern Alliance. Most Taliban officials graduated from the schools.

Pakistan's military President Pervez Musharraf, who became a staunch US ally by shunning the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, last year proposed reforming madrassahs to rein in rising militancy.

But the move has largely failed because of strong opposition from hardline groups.

Huge gains by Islamic parties in last year's elections in Baluchistan and neighboring North West Frontier Province raised concern that they could undermine the US-led hunt for the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks.

A recent surge in attacks in southern Afghanistan further bolstered fears in Kabul and Washington that Pakistani religious seminaries were once again offering sanctuary to Taliban guerrillas.

US-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai says remnants of the former Taliban regime have been infiltrating from Pakistan to launch attacks on US and Afghan forces, a view that is shared by the US military.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Iraq, said last month the Taliban was "planning in Quetta."

Pakistan denies accusations of allowing the Taliban to regroup on its soil or cross into Afghanistan, and says it has arrested hundreds of al-Qaeda militants.

Afghan religious students express outrage over the presence of "alien forces" in their country but say they are not involved in cross-border military activity.

"I feel bad seeing American troops occupying my country and wish to join the jihad there, although I have not yet done so," said Umeedullah, a 21-year-old Afghan student.

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