May 23, 2013
Reforming Pakistan’s ‘Dens of Terror’
Posted on Jan 22, 2007
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.
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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