Tue, Jan 03, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Pakistan shies away from madrasah clampdown


As the incendiary training at some of Pakistan's seminaries drew renewed focus in the weeks after London's July 7 bombings, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf promised to bring the schools into the mainstream and expel their foreign students by the end of the year.

But his tough pledge has fizzled.

Last week, the government backed away from its deadline and said it would not use force to deport the students. The schools then said they would resist any effort to round up the students and, on Sunday, a coalition representing the seminaries told AP the government's plan was "inhuman, immoral and totally illegal."

The schools, called madrasahs, were once the Islamic equivalent of Sunday schools. Supported by private donations, they now provide free housing, meals and education -- a lure for poor families in particular. The rigid training at some schools, though, make them ripe for recruiting by Islamic militant groups.

Among the four suicide bombers in the London attacks, three were Britons of Pakistani descent, and at least one had spent time at an Islamabad-based madrasah with connections to militant groups.

The limited gains in carrying out the madrasah reforms reflect the delicate political choices facing Musharraf. His backers point out that pursuing madrasahs too aggressively would only enable religious radicals in Pakistan to depict the president as a stooge for the West. Critics say it only reflects Musharraf's half-hearted resolve to flush out religious militancy.

His promise last July was, in fact, a reiteration of earlier promises. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan's religious schools were put under a sharp spotlight and, among the many changes Musharraf pledged in exchange for generous aid and debt relief from the US and other Western allies, was madrasah reform.

On Friday, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao told Reuters that the government did not intend to use force to root out foreign students.

"What action can be taken against those students?" he said. "The management of the madrasahs are responsible to arrange departures of their students and we are pushing them to help us in implementing this decision."

Citing figures from the main association representing the religious schools, the Federation of Madrasahs, AP reported last week that about 1,000 foreign students had left since July, while 700 remained.

In addition to expelling foreign students, Musharraf said in July that the madrasahs would be required to register with the government and to account for their financing.

In September, the government announced that it had struck a deal with influential clerics to register all seminaries. But so far, 5,000 of the 12,000 established schools have not registered, according to Minister for Religious Affairs Ijaz ul-Haq.

Madrasahs have traditionally operated autonomously and with financing from private charities. They follow their own curriculums and spurn efforts to modernize.

Musharraf has called them the largest non-governmental organizations in the world.

The schools mushroomed during the government of Haq's father, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who was president from 1977 to 1988 and a US ally. At the same time, students recruited from the seminaries were trained to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal, many of the Sunni radical madrasahs educated Taliban footsoldiers and leaders.

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