October 14, 2001


Nurturing Young Islamic Hearts and Hatreds


PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct. 13 A thousand years ago, in the days of the camel caravans, storytellers gathered here in the tea shops and brought the outside world and all its thoughts and ideas to the bazaar. As the vendors hawked silk, spice and rich tapestries and traders herded beasts through streets thick with smoke from cooking fires, travelers from distant lands and differing religions told stories about moguls, magic, wit and wisdom. In time, the bazaar came to be known as Qissa Khwani the Bazaar of the Storytellers.

Now, the streets are still choked with donkey carts, and meat still sizzles on open pits, but the vendors are poor men selling simple things. Blaring car horns drown out all other sound, just as the teachers and students in the Islamic seminaries that surround this bazaar have drowned out all conflicting ideas, all unacceptable thoughts.

The storytellers no longer come. There is just one story now, at least one acceptable story. It is the one taught in the seminaries, called madrassas, that have become incubators in Pakistan for the holy warriors who say they will die to defend Islam and their hero, Osama bin Laden, from the infidels. In many of the 7,500 madrassas in Pakistan, inside a student body of 750,000 to a million, students learn to recite and obey Islamic law, and to distrust and even hate the United States.

"Jihad," shouted a little boy, from a high window in a madrassa just steps from the Khwani Bazaar. He grinned and waved as foreign journalists snapped his photograph, but, on the streets below, older students had massed for demonstrations that would end in clouds of tear gas and smoke from burning tires, as young men jumped through fire to prove their faith and ferocity.

President Bush and diplomats from the West have taken great pains to point out that the war on Mr. bin Laden and the Taliban of Afghanistan is not a war on Islam, but in many madrassas here in Pakistan especially those near the border with Afghanistan militant Muslims lecture students that the United States is a nation of Christians and Jews who are not after a single terrorist or government but are bent on the worldwide annihilation of Islam.

The madrassas' sword is in the narrow education they offer, and the devotion they engender from students from the poorest classes who, without them, would have nowhere to go, or go hungry.

At the Markaz Uloom Islamia madrassa in Peshawar, Muhammad Sabir, 22, motioned to the eerily quiet compound, devoid of students. Final exams are over, he said. The scholars, many of them, have left to fight against the United States. "They have gone for jihad," said Mr. Sabir, a student there. "It is our moral and religious duty." He said the words automatically, woodenly, as if repeating his elder's recitation of the Koran.

"There is no practical training of terrorists here," said Asif Qureishi, an Islamic scholar and the son of Maulana Mohd Yousaf Qureishi, who heads the Darul-Uloom Ashrafia madrassa in Peshawar. There are no weapons, no knives or guns, no weapons training. The madrassas hone only the mind, he said.

"We prepare them for the jihad, mentally," said Mr. Qureishi, whose duties at the madrassa include the call to prayers. In a small room at the madrassa, students nodded appreciatively at his words. Some were no more than 10.

"The minds are fresh," he said. In his tiny office, a bag of rice rests against a wall. Outside the door, a student hefts the carcass of a slaughtered goat.

What the students hear, in compounds that range from spartan to squalid, is a drumbeat of American injustice, cruelty and closed-mindedness the United States is just that way, the elders say.

"They send cruise missiles against gravestones," said Al-Sheikh Rahat Gul, the stick-thin, 81-year-old maulana who heads Markaz Uloom Islamia in Peshawar, a madrassa with about 250 students.

The Americans kill only innocents, said the maulana, a large pair of thick-lensed, black-framed glassed sitting crookedly on his head. "The Koran forbids the killing of females, children, elders and cattle," he said. "That is war. That is not holy war." Sons of Islam must answer that tyranny with holy war, he said.

He condemns the World Trade Center attack but dismisses any connection to this part of the world. "The Jews have done this," he said, calling the attacks a plot by Israel to draw the world into war. "And the Hindus are just like them." It is repeated madrassa by madrassa, the company line of the militants and the poorer classes from which they come, spreading out from the student body to the shops and foot traffic.

Maulana Gul proudly points to a cartoon on the back of a pamphlet at his madrassa that shows Afghanistan encircled by a chain, and the chain is secured by a padlock that is labeled "United Nations." Inside the chain are weeping children. Hands reach from all directions with offerings of food, money and grain, hands are grabbed at the wrist by other hands labeled "U.S.A.," preventing that aid from getting to the starving people.

In the madrassas, students ranging in age from 7 or 8 to men over 20 are taught a strict interpretation of the Koran, including the duty of all Muslims to rise up in jihad. There are no televisions and some madrassas do not even allow transistor radios. There are no magazines or newspapers except those deemed acceptable by the elders. The outside world is closed to them, and many of the students seem puzzled when asked if they mind that. Their teachers, most of them respected elders, tell them what they need to know, the students said.

Almost all the leadership of the Taliban, including Mullah Muhammad Omar, was educated in madrassas in Pakistan most of them in a single madrassa, Jamia Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khatak in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. The anti-American protests that have filled the streets in Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi have been planned in madrassas their maulanas, the elders who run the schools, are the spiritual hub of the protests.

In Quetta, after the United States began its missile attacks on the Taliban, 300 Afghans who had attended madrassas in Pakistan crossed the border to join the jihad. Every day, said madrassa students, Pakistanis slip over the border to join them.

"The madrassas indulge in brainwashing on a large scope, of the young children and those in their early teens," said Arasiab Khattak, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who stressed it is unfair to say that all madrassas are the same. Some are more militant than others.

But along the border with Afghanistan, the vast majority of madrassas have become an assembly line for the jihad. Even the scholars themselves and their teachers say that this is so.

Almost all the students come from poor families who cannot afford any other education in a country that spends about 90 percent of its budget on debt service and the military and almost nothing on public schools.

A large family, said Mr. Khattak, often sends two or three sons to a madrassa because it cannot afford to feed them. "There is no access to the regular education system," he said.

The madrassas, often supported by donors from other Islamic states like Saudi Arabia, offer a narrow education many of them do not teach science, math, languages or any history beyond that in the Koran but do offer students food and a place to sleep. In madrassas, children from the hardest poverty in Pakistan and orphans from wars in Afghanistan, get enough to eat.

Here, the difference between poverty and wealth is apparent on a person's feet. If someone wears sandals made of leather, they have at least some wealth. The poorest wear mass-produced sandals made of plastic. At the doors to the madrassas here no one enters any office or classroom wearing shoes rows of plastic sandals sit just outside the doors.

There have been madrassas in Pakistan for hundreds of years, austere stone and brick schools built around a mosque where students spend as many as eight years being instructed in the Koran. They learn by parroting their mullahs, who recite the Koran. There are no questions, no discussion.

In the past quarter-century, said experts on the madrassas, jihad has become more than a lesson to recite.

In the 1980's, students left these madrassas to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan including many Pakistanis, some of whom have an ethnic and tribal kinship to the Afghans. In the 1990's students became foot soldiers and leaders in the Taliban. Now, they form an army around Osama bin Laden.

In the hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, students described how they ran through the sprawling Jamia Darul Uloom Haqqania compound celebrating, stabbing the fingers on one hand into the palm of the other, to simulate a plane stabbing into a building.

The morning after the attacks, elders at the madrassa, which translates to "The University of All Righteous Knowledge," summoned students to study hall. The elders explained what had happened. "No, no, not Muslims," said Fazal Ghani, 22, an Afghan, as he passed on his teachers' explanation of who had caused the deaths of thousands. "This was Yehudi," the Jews. "trying to discredit Islam." He tried to express his sympathy for the victims of the bombings, saying "Bad, bad," but he could not stop smiling.

His teachers had explained that, even though the Jews flew the planes into the towers, it was Allah's will. Allah, the teachers said, put the idea in the minds of the Jews.

Allah, in his wisdom, knew that the Muslims would perhaps be briefly discredited, the students said, but that when the truth came out, it would ultimately destroy the Jews.

Radios are allowed at this madrassa, and some of the students had held radios to their ears all night, listening to news reports. But that was just noise, just electricity. The truth, the only truth, came from the madrassa's teachers.

"The wrath of God," the teachers had said.

But until recent violent demonstrations in Pakistan planned in the madrassas and carried out, at least in part, by students there was no government condemnation. Just two weeks ago, the Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, was calling them "misunderstood organizations," that were actually welfare systems to aid the poor. He has since jailed several of the madrassas' leaders, after demonstrations in Quetta and Karachi left businesses ablaze.

Maulana Khalid Banori, who heads Darul-Uloom Sarhad in Peshawar, sees himself as a college superintendent. Students at his madrassa study science, math and English, and can use credits earned here to apply for graduate schools, or they can use their education to qualify for civil service jobs. He said he wants his students to have a well-rounded education, but one based in the teachings of Islam.

He hopes the violence will end, that the terrorism will end. It will, he said, as soon the Americans stop committing it.

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