Madrassas under pressure after operation

ISLAMABAD, July 12: The bloodshed at Lal Masjid has again turned the spotlight on the madrassas, which are accused of links to attacks at home, in neighbouring Afghanistan and as far away as London.

Burqa-clad students from Jamia Hafsa initiated the confrontation with the government earlier this year with their freelance anti-vice campaign. Several male students linked to the mosque were believed to be among more than 53 rebels who were killed when commandos stormed the mosque on Tuesday, security officials say.

The organisation that oversees the country's 13,000 registered madrassas, the Wafaqul Madaris, denies the students are involved in extremist activities.

"Like no human being can survive without water and air, no Muslim society can survive without madrassas," Mufti Mohammad Zareen Khan, a senior official from the organisation, said. "Madrassas are not involved in extremism. If teaching the concept of jihad in Islam is viewed as an act of extremism by the West, we do not accept it." He said the schools cater to the "poorest of the poorest", providing children with free education, board and lodging plus tutoring in the tenets of the religion.

Yet, only two years ago, President Pervez Musharraf promised a massive crackdown on madrassas after it emerged that some of the suicide bombers who struck the London transport network on July 7, 2005 had attended them. At the time he ordered all foreign students to leave Pakistan.

Plans to register them all have however moved slowly amid resistance by the groups that run the schools. Some 6,000 have not done so.

Radical madrassas, particularly in the violent tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, have more recently been accused of training fighters for the Taliban insurgency there.

Multinational forces with around 50,000 troops in Afghanistan, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, have repeatedly urged Musharraf to tackle the problem of militancy in madrassas.

Many of them were set up, often with US and Saudi funding, as indoctrination and military training sites during the 1979-1989 US-backed guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.

The most hardline schools, particularly near the Afghan border, went on to produce thousands of young recruits for the Taliban, both when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and then after the regime was ousted by a US-led coalition.

Muttahir Ahmed, professor of international relations at Karachi University, said that while Musharraf may have tackled one of the most radical madrassas, the Jamia Hafsa girls' school, others would still cause problems.

"Jamia Binoria in Karachi and Jamia Hafsa in Islamabad are mother institutions for the Taliban. The madrassas will not let him do it again and can come back more strongly," Ahmed said.

And Musharraf could even face opposition from the more moderate schools.

"Muslims should stop paying tax to the government after what they did to the Lal Masjid and its madrassa," said Qari Sher Afzal, a senior member of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. "The attack is a death warrant for all madrassas and Muslims should not allow such attacks," he said. afp

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