Pakistan Targets Religious Schools That Preach Violence

With the Taliban reeling in defeat, Pakistan's military-led government plans to rein in the country's religious schools, state-funded institutions that sent thousands of young students to fight alongside the Islamic militia.

A new law boosts funding to Islamic schools, or madrassas, that adopt modern subjects, including science, computers, English and math. The government also plans to cut funding to those schools deemed to breed extremism and violence.

Most religious schools teach only Islamic subjects, including Islamic law and the Muslim holy book, the Quran. Most of the Taliban's leadership was educated in Pakistani madrassas during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The law was enacted in August, even before the terrorist attacks in the United States — allegedly masterminded by Usama bin Laden — and the military campaign against Afghanistan which the government here supported.

However, the Taliban's virtual defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition and the fact that the groundswell of opposition to the Pakistani government never materialized has emboldened officials to push on with the plan.

Government officials said Friday they planned to establish a board to regulate and monitor the madrassas and to make sure their students don't indulge in violence. They also announced plans to set up three model Islamic schools as early as March.

"The move is aimed to integrate modern and religious education," said S.M. Zaman, chairman of a government agency that advises on religious policy.

Leaders of some of the schools predicted violence if the government tries to enforce the law.

"It is an attempt to destroy Islamic education, divorce us from our religion and divide the Muslims," said Maulana Sami-ul Haq, a powerful political leader who runs a large religious school in the northern town of Okara Khattak. "They will resist it in every town and city."

"The government is doing all this under foreign pressure," he added.

However, such groups never managed to mount big enough protests during the U.S. bombing campaign to force President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to reverse his support of the anti-terrorism campaign.

With the defeat of Taliban forces in the north, thousands of Pakistanis have fled back into the country, in some cases to face arrest. One prominent Islamic leader, Sufi Mohammed, was sentenced to three years imprisonment on weapons charges after returning from Pakistan with fighters he had taken to Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government funds religious schools through the "zakat," a 2.5 percent tax collected from the bank accounts of all Sunni Muslims once a year. The tax draws in millions of dollars every year.

Under the new law, the government will give a greater share of the zakat to schools that adopt the new curriculum so they can hire new teachers and buy equipment. Schools that encourage militancy would see their share cut.

Although madrassas have been around for centuries, their numbers skyrocketed in the 1980s, when Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan. The United States secretly sent millions to finance Islamic resistance, and the country's Muslim fundamentalist president, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, courted hardline religious groups.

Heavy funding from oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, private donations and the government paid for new mosques and schools here.

Today, more than 700,000 boys — and some girls, in separate classes — study at 7,000 to 8,000 religious schools in Pakistan.

Pakistan's public school system is in shambles, and many families cannot afford the fees — even though they are small — charged by government-run schools. In addition, warlords and landowners in some rural areas appropriate schoolhouses for things like warehouses and stables.

The religious schools offer an attractive alternative: free education, free meals, free schoolbooks — and in many cases, even a stipend of up to $1.70 a month.

Many school directors say the government is now trying to secularize Islamic institutions in this religious country, saying the schools are important as a counterbalance to Western influence and as a safeguard of Islamic values in Pakistan's society.

"The government wants to please the United States," said Mufti Abdul Qayyum, who heads an organization representing hundreds of religious schools. "We do not just impart Islamic education, but prepare students for jihad."

Zaman, the government official, said most madrassas needn't worry.

"Action would be taken only against those institutions — be they religious or secular — that preach violence," he said.

Some religious schools said they have no problem with the government plans. Maulana Mohammed Akram said his Jamia Asharfia, a leading Islamic school in Lahore, already teaches modern subjects, even how to use computers.

"If the government syllabus is good, there is no harm adopting it," he said. "Only a handful of rigid clerics can oppose such a good move."

But Haq said that if the protests don't stop the government's plan, the religious teachers will simply get by without the government funds.

"We can impart Islamic education under a tree," he said.