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Reforming Pakistan’s ‘Dens of Terror’

Posted on Jan 22, 2007
Abbas Hussein
photo by Nicholas Schmidle

Abbas Hussein during a lecture on multiple intelligences.

By Nicholas Schmidle

Pakistan’s “madrassas” have been described as “jihad universities” because of their ties to the Taliban and Islamic extremists. An expert on the region reports that a small-scale indigenous effort to reform the religious schools could be making more progress than the combined forces of the American, British and Pakistani governments.

Considering the audience,  I was caught slightly off guard when a middle-aged woman dressed like a five-foot piece of saltwater taffy—pink heels, pink purse, pink pants, pink tunic (and, of course, head scarf)—mounted the podium and began expounding on the virtues of Adam Smith’s economic philosophy. In front of her, 25 mullahs sat around a U-shaped table in the conference room of a Karachi hotel, scribbling furiously in their notebooks, craning their necks to see the whiteboard and peering over one another’s shoulders to be sure they hadn’t missed any salient points amid the deluge of unfamiliar names. They all hailed from a remote part of Pakistan, and they wore a variety of checkered turbans and shawls. Some had donned colorful, hand-stitched prayer caps studded with hundreds of tiny mirrors. The woman in pink, a doctor in Islamic jurisprudence from Karachi University (where she teaches in the department of Quran and Sunnah), explained the core tenets of capitalism. And she had a surprising message: Free-market economy and “the invisible hand” are totally compatible with Islam. In his time, she reminded them, the Prophet Muhammad was out busting up monopolies himself.

Last fall, when Hafez Khalil Ahmed first invited me to attend a 10-day “madrassa” workshop he planned for early December, I had no idea what to expect. Ahmed, apparently in his 30s, a soft-spoken man with freckles, a wide neck and a full but not scruffy beard, runs a large madrassa, or Islamic seminary, in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan in southwestern Pakistan. His madrassa is just a few hours’ drive from Kandahar, Afghanistan; it doubles as the regional headquarters for Jamiat Ulema-i-Islami (JUI), a hard-line political party and stalwart supporter of the Taliban.

Since 2001, the connection between madrassas like Ahmed’s and Islamic militancy has been a source of intense debate. Most of the top leaders of the former Taliban government in Afghanistan had graduated from Pakistani madrassas. Mullah Omar, head of the Taliban and self-declared “amir ul momineen,” or leader of the faithful, didn’t attend one, but he was given an honorary degree from Darul Uloom Haqqania, a sprawling madrassa with more than 3,000 students, located about two hours’ drive from the Afghan border. A June 2000 piece in The New York Times Magazine described Haqqania as a “jihad factory.” In other articles, Pakistan’s madrassas have been called “dens of terror” or “jihad universities.” In October 2003, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld distributed a memo throughout the Pentagon that asked: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

Ahmed was once a firebrand himself; after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States he was filmed leading a procession through the streets of Quetta, chanting “Long live Sheikh Osama” and “Long live Mullah Omar.” But then, after hearing more and more Afghans criticizing the Taliban’s rule, he changed his mind. “We thought the people of Afghanistan supported the Taliban,” he told a reporter that fall, “but we were wrong.” Since then, he’s made it his mission to convince anyone who will listen that the Taliban’s ideas are backward and misleading. Ahmed says he is “trying to correct wrong perceptions about Americans….” To begin, he targeted those he knows best: madrassa teachers.


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According to Ahmed, the aim of the 10-day workshop, titled “Deeni Madaris [religious madrassas] and the Modern World,” was to “close the huge gap between these [religious] people and the rest of society.” He believes that exposing the mullahs to new ideas and encouraging interfaith dialogue offer a way to do it.  “These people have been left alone in the cave of time,” one lecturer at the workshop told me. “Now they are being woken up to this bizarre reality, where they can’t be put on hold on the phone because there is music playing in the background”—Islamic fundamentalists consider music un-Islamic—“and they can’t even stand in an elevator.” Such stories could almost pass for comedy if the issue—that is, the minds of a generation of young men and women—weren’t so serious.

When I arrived in the gaudy lobby of Karachi’s Mehran Hotel in the first week of December, I expected to find the workshop filled with big-bearded men with pained expressions on their faces as they sat through dull, exhausting lectures. Previous interactions with madrassa teachers convinced me that they wanted little part in the debate over how to reform their schools.

One of my assumptions was correct: They do, in fact, have bushy beards. In the lobby of the hotel, plenty of other guests stopped to stare as the “ulema,” or religious scholars, passed in their tunic-and-baggy-pants attire. But so that the attendees wouldn’t become bored and tune out, Ahmed had invited a dynamic and impressive cast of speakers.

His idea was to induce a kind of shock therapy; judging by the expressions on the mullahs’ faces when the woman in pink entered the room, he succeeded. Two days after the Adam Smith lecture, a Shiite Muslim scholar proposed a provocative, unorthodox way of reading the Quran, borrowing heavily from Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction. Derrida, a staunch atheist, believed that the meaning of texts are fluid and subject to infinite interpretations, depending on the reader, his/her history, his/her environment, the time, etc. “In the Quran, Allah told us to go on ‘hajj’ [pilgrimage to Mecca] in caravans on camels. But times have changed,” said the scholar, who had studied both in Najaf, Iraq, under Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and at the University of North Carolina, where he researched the Synoptic Gospels. “Besides the ‘kalma’ [profession of faith], everything in the Quran is moving.”

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By paluka, January 25, 2007 at 2:40 pm Link to this comment
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RE: Levi Civita

You’re an idiot. If you think you can solve war with war, why don’t you go to war with yourself and leave the rest of us out of it? When you’ve won and lost, you will find that you are still at war.

This article is talking about one side of the only real solution to world ‘terror’, the other side being us changing our leadership’s selfish and aggressive foreign policies, by peaceful means. Let’s go to it.

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By irfan, January 25, 2007 at 8:50 am Link to this comment
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Islam is religon of peace. Islam teaches love and peace. Madrassa is name of relgious school where student get islamic education. In all madrassa education of islam is given. Madrassas not provide then any education to fight with others. madrassa is nt producing Jihadists.

In the linguistic sense, the Arabic word “jihad” means struggling or striving and applies to any effort exerted by anyone. In this sense, a student struggles and strives to get an education and pass course work; an employee strives to fulfill his/her job and maintain good relations with his/her employer; a politician strives to maintain or increase his (1) popularity with his constituents and so on. The term strive or struggle may be used for/by Muslims as well as non-Muslims; for example, Allah, the One and Only True God says in the Qur’an:

“We have enjoined on people kindness to parents; but if they STRIVE (JAHADAKA) to make you ascribe partners with Me that of which you have no knowledge, then obey them not…” (29:8; also see 31:15)

In the West, “jihad” is generally translated as “holy war,” a usage the media has popularized. According to Islamic teachings, it is UNHOLY to instigate or start war; however, some wars are inevitable and justifiable. If we translate the words “holy war” back into Arabic, we find “harbun muqaddasatu,” or for “the holy war,” “al-harbu al-muqaddasatu.” WE CHALLENGE any researcher or scholar to find the meaning of “jihad” as holy war in the Qur’an or authentic Hadith collections or in early Islamic literature.


Allah declares in the Qur’an:

“As for those who STRIVE (JAHADU) in Us (the cause of Allah), We surely guide them to Our paths, and lo! Allah is with the good doers.” (29:69)


The unequivocal and emphatic answer is NO! The Qur’an declares:

“Let there be no compulsion (or coercion) in the religion (Islam). The right direction is distinctly clear from error.” (2:256

Islam does not teach, nor do Muslims desire, conversion of any people for fear, greed, marriage or any other form of coercion.

In conclusion, jihad in Islam is STRIVING IN THE WAY OF ALLAH by pen, tongue, hand, media and, if inevitable, with arms. However, jihad in Islam does not include striving for individual or national power, dominance, glory, wealth, prestige or pride.

A few muslims r individually doing jehad due to opression of foreigne forces.

In afganistan talban were made due to opression of war lords to innocent afgan peoples. Any Afgan war lord can kidnap any woman earlier. So talban fought againest corrupt evil warlords and brought peace and justice in afganistn, So people can leave their shops alone full f goods in it.

bush have killed more than 650000 iraqi in iraq in so called war of terror.
now in somalia talban were made due to opression od evil doers warlords in country.who deprived nation from peace and justice for a long time.
President bush now invaded on them by suggesion of his neocons advisers who enemy of all muslims in world. But islam teaches love and peace to all mankind

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By PatrickHenry, January 24, 2007 at 4:30 pm Link to this comment
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There are a few charter schools in this country which could bear further scrunity.

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By Ga, January 24, 2007 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment
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Since the word madrassa means school, not all “madrassas” in Muslim popolated countries are for “jihad.”

If there are any problems with schools it is with “fundamental religious schools.” And that includes fundamental Christian and Jewish schools as well.

Any school that preaches one doctrine, one faith, one way of live, is by definition, going to produce crazy people who look upon all others as “evil.”

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By Jackie T. Gabel, January 23, 2007 at 8:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

RE:  “jihad universities””...American, British and Pakistani governments have spent tens of millions of dollars trying to reform Pakistan’s madrassa system at a macro-level…support from the CIA and Saudi Arabia…”

>>>>>> the expression al CIA-duh doesn’t come from nowhere

“reform” is one way of cloaking your operation, education in general is a time-honored method for recruiting assets.

e.g. Spreading Saudi Fundamentalism in U.S. Network of Wahhabi Mosques, Schools, Web Sites Probed by FBI By Susan Schmidt, Washington Post Staff Writer; Thursday, October 2, 2003; Page A01

This can all be quite confusing. Alphabet spooks spend a lot of time investigating terrorist recruiters, just as seen before 9/11, only to have their investigations blocked by moles with another agenda: let the patsies play out their roles, until the operation unfolds, then round them up and charge them…if they’re still alive — you see these agencies looking ever more incompetent and wonder why. These are not intelligence “failures.” These are intelligence “successes.”

London’s Brixton and Finsbury mosques aren’t for nothing being referred to as MI-5/MI-6 Patsy Schools.

e.g. FULL TRANSCRIPT: The July 29, 2005 edition of British FOX News Channel’s Day Side


MIKE JERRICK [FOX NEWS]: John Loftus is a terrorism expert and a former prosecutor for the Justice Department. John, good to see you again. So real quickly here, have you heard anything about this Osman Hussain who was just picked up in Rome? You know that name at all?

JOHN LOFTUS: Yeah, all these guys should be going back to an organization called Al-Muhajiroun, which means The Emigrants. It was the recruiting arm of Al-Qaeda in London; they specialized in recruiting kids whose families had emigrated to Britain but who had British passports. And they would use them for terrorist work.

JERRICK: So a couple of them now have Somali connections?

LOFTUS: Yeah, it was not unusual. Somalia, Eritrea, the first group of course were primarily Pakistani. But what they had in common was they were all emigrant groups in Britain, recruited by this Al-Muhajiroun group. They were headed by the, Captain Hook, the imam in London the Finsbury Mosque, without the arm. He was the head of that organization. Now his assistant was a guy named Aswat, Haroon Rashid Aswat.

JERRICK: Aswat, who they picked up.

LOFTUS: Right, Aswat is believed to be the mastermind of all the bombings in London.

JERRICK: On 7/7 and 7/21, this is the guy we think.

LOFTUS: This is the guy, and what’s really embarrassing is that the entire British police are out chasing him, and one wing of the British government,

MI6 or the British Secret Service, has been hiding him.

continued here

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By levi civita, January 23, 2007 at 5:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Give me a break!

Making a mullah mild mannered changes the facts on the ground?

The mullah’s army has no gun-ships and no 1000-pounders. His land is being occupied by public-funded Militaries from half-way across the globe on behalf of Exxon and such like.

The mullahs’ people are supposed to lay down, preferably face-down, and allow the invaders to build their pipelines from which they will get nothing but chemical pollution and disease like the people of the Niger delta!

A bleeding-heart liberal here does more killing in a day by not raising his or her voice, fearing Homeland Security, than a gaggle of madrassa’s will do in a decade.

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