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Pakistani students display a radical Islam

ISLAMABAD, July 24: Hameeda Sarfraz, 19, lively eyes sparkling out of a black burka, was describing the boons of the afterlife.

"In heaven you get everything without hardship," said Sarfraz, daughter of a bus driver. "In heaven, if a martyr feels hungry, food appears, the best quality food, and you won't even know where it came from."

Sarfraz, an alumna of the now bullet-ridden Jamia Hafsa Islamic school for girls, said she deeply regretted missing her chance to be a martyr. She fled through the back door of the school July 3, just hours after a gun battle began between Pakistani special forces and militants holed up in the neighboring Red Mosque, the parent institution of Jamia Hafsa.

Sentiments like hers are the fruits of a radical Islam that has blossomed in this country - not just in the lawless tribal areas that American intelligence officials describe as an enduring sanctuary for Al Qaeda but in its capital, in a mosque and school compound that until recently enjoyed the blessings of the state.

The young adherents present a portrait of adolescent passion that one might find anywhere, except that they are Pakistani girls mostly from poor rural families and their passion is directed against the government of President Pervez Musharraf. Some among Jamia Hafsa's alumnae say they still wish to die in the cause of militant Islam.

During the siege, the Pakistani military maintained that women and children had been held hostage by hard-core fighters inside the compound. But Sarfraz and several others, when interviewed, said they had been free to stay or go, and some had held out until near the end. The bodies of six women were recovered at the end of the battle.

"I was studying there six years," said Shahnaz Akhtar, 20, another former student who had held out until the penultimate day of the siege. "I was so attached to it."

"I couldn't leave just because a dictator started bombing it," Akhtar said. "I feel more at home there than I do at home."

Shortly before the siege began, women students emerged from the school, draped in black burkas, waving bamboo sticks and taunting troops stationed nearby. The Pakistani press dubbed them "chicks with sticks."

Sarfraz returned home two weeks ago from that cauldron of radical Islamist fervor to the prosaic chores of a young woman in the Pakistani countryside. Home is a village perched on green terraced hills, a little more than 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, from the capital.

"I miss Jamia," she said. "My contact with books is gone."

"At home the only thing for me to do is take care of my parents," she continued. "I clean the house. I cook."

She and others returned with a mission to reform their families and their communities, cajoling their mothers and sisters to hide themselves in head-to-toe black burkas. They say they have lost interest in the pleasures of this life though some, like Akhtar, have yet to give up on pleasures like painting their toenails a dark blood-red. They express an obsession with the afterlife.

They say they would like to see a thousand Jamia Hafsa seminaries bloom across the nation. Sarfraz has already begun classes at home for the children in her village.

There are already about 12,000 madrassas with about one million students across Pakistan. Some, though not all, embrace militancy.

The families of these returning girls appear to be less hard line about their faith than their daughters. They say they sent their sisters and daughters to Jamia Hafsa because it was free and safe and enjoyed a good reputation for providing religious education. Akhtar's family, for instance, sent her to the school six years ago, after she completed eighth grade and expressed a desire to further her education. Her village still has no high school for girls; the nearest one is a three-kilometer walk.

Akhtar studied the Koran, the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet, and Islamic jurisprudence. She learned of the virtues of martyrdom.

"I prayed to God I would play a role in jihad," she said.

She learned to justify suicide bombings as a weapon that could be deployed in the event of a battle between what she called "true believers" and "infidels."

Would Islam allow suicide bombing inside Pakistan, an Islamic nation? She said it was possible, and then hesitated when pressed. She said she was not a qualified Islamic scholar.

The battle for the Red Mosque compound began in earnest last January when a pack of Jamia Hafsa students, fueled by reports that the government planned to demolish some illegally constructed mosques and seminaries in Islamabad, including Jamia Hafsa, occupied an adjacent public library.

Early that morning, Akhtar recounted, the girls, armed with cane batons, pushed open its back door and awakened the caretakers who were sleeping on the floor with cries of "God is great." The caretakers threw the keys to the library on the floor and fled. Akhtar giggled as she recalled the event, and then said she had not been part of it.

In the following months, the students, along with their counterparts from the boy's school, Jamia Farida, abducted three Pakistani women accused of running a brothel. Then they kidnapped six Chinese masseuses working in what they alleged also to be a brothel; they released the captives the next day, but the abduction paved the way for the final confrontation.

Three times in the past few months, as confrontation loomed between the Red Mosque and Musharraf's government, Akhtar's parents appealed to her to return home. She said no, she wanted to be "a martyr." She flashed a toothy smile at the memory.

In the weeks before the final siege began, she said, the students were warned that the military could strike.

"Are you girls prepared for that?" she recalled being asked by teachers. "Do you have the stamina to defend your religion? Are you ready?"

By the time the fighting was over, the official death toll stood at 102, including 11 soldiers. The military said the leaders of the rebellion, including a pro-Taliban cleric named Abdur Rashid Ghazi, had been killed. About 160 people, including three women, have been arrested. Nearly 1,000 others have been released to their families, including 465 women.

To varying degrees, they have all taken a piece of Jamia Hafsa with them. And their transformation is not lost on their families.

Up the road from Akhtar's home, in a village called Kotla, sat four girls, aged 15 to 18, all cousins, who said they had been forced by their families to leave the school after the military raid began.

They sat in one girl's home telling their story, their faces uncovered only because no man was present. But when Mohammed Matloob, the father of one of the girls, walked into the room, the other three quickly pulled their head scarves over their faces. His daughter, Nagina, 16, ordered him to leave the room, which he did, with a surprised shrug.

The girls explained that at Jamia Hafsa they had been taught to observe "purdah," the practice of shielding faces and figures from any man who is not a member of the immediate family. They had changed since they left home for Jamia.

"We used to listen to music and watch TV before," said Sayeda Fazlur Rehman, 17, with a look of disgust. "We didn't even pray."

Practicing purdah, they said, would hasten their ascent to heaven. "This life is temporary," Fazlur Rehman said, a common refrain of the Jamia Hafsa alumni. "You don't know when you'll die."

International Herald Tribune
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