For Many Pakistani Children , Madrasas Fill a Void

.....................SLAP ON PAKISTANI ELITE AND BOURGEOIS FACE....................

MOHRI PUR, Pakistan — The elementary school in this poor village is easy to mistake for a barn. It has a dirt floor and no lights, and crows swoop through its glassless windows. Class size recently hit 140, spilling students into the courtyard.

But if the state has forgotten the children here, the mullahs have not. With public education in shambles, Pakistan’s poorest families have turned to madrasas, or Islamic schools, that feed and house the children while pushing a more militant brand of Islam than was traditional here.

The concentration of madrasas here in southern Punjab has become an urgent concern in the face of Pakistan’s expanding insurgency. The schools offer almost no instruction beyond the memorizing of the Koran, creating a widening pool of young minds that are sympathetic to militancy.

In an analysis of the profiles of suicide bombers who have struck in Punjab, the Punjab police said more than two-thirds had attended madrasas.

“We are at the beginning of a great storm that is about to sweep the country,” said Ibn Abduh Rehman, who directs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization. “It’s red alert for Pakistan.”

President Obama said in a news conference last week that he was “gravely concerned” about the situation in Pakistan, not least because the government did not “seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services: schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of the people.”

He has asked Congress to more than triple assistance to Pakistan for nonmilitary purposes, including education. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has given Pakistan a total of $680 million in nonmilitary aid, according to the State Department, far lower than the $1 billion a year for the military.

But education has never been a priority here, and even Pakistan’s current plan to double education spending next year might collapse as have past efforts, which were thwarted by sluggish bureaucracies, unstable governments and a lack of commitment by Pakistan’s governing elite to the poor.

“This is a state that never took education seriously,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution. “I’m very pessimistic about whether the educational system can or will be reformed.”

Pakistani families have long turned to madrasas, and the religious schools make up a relatively small minority. But even for the majority who attend public school, learning has an Islamic bent. The national curriculum was Islamized during the 1980s under Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, a military ruler who promoted Pakistan’s Islamic identity as a way to bind its patchwork of tribes, ethnicities and languages.

Literacy in Pakistan has grown from barely 20 percent at independence 61 years ago, and the government recently improved the curriculum and reduced its emphasis on Islam.

But even today, only about half of Pakistanis can read and write, far below the proportion in countries with similar per-capita income, like Vietnam. One in three school-age Pakistani children does not attend school, and of those who do, a third drop out by fifth grade, according to Unesco. Girls’ enrollment is among the lowest in the world, lagging behind Ethiopia and Yemen.

“Education in Pakistan was left to the dogs,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad who is an outspoken critic of the government’s failure to stand up to spreading Islamic militancy.

This impoverished expanse of rural southern Punjab, where the Taliban have begun making inroads with the help of local militant groups, has one of the highest concentrations of madrasas in the country.

Of the more than 12,000 madrasas registered in Pakistan, about half are in Punjab. Experts estimate the numbers are higher: when the state tried to count them in 2005, a fifth of the areas in this province refused to register.

Though madrasas make up only about 7 percent of primary schools in Pakistan, their influence is amplified by the inadequacy of public education and the innate religiosity of the countryside, where two-thirds of people live.

The public elementary school for boys in this village is the very picture of the generations of neglect that have left many poor Pakistanis feeling abandoned by their government.

Shaukat Ali, 40, a tall man with an earnest manner who teaches fifth grade, said he had asked everyone for help with financing, including government officials and army officers. A television channel even did a report. “The result,” he said, “was zero.”

A government official responsible for monitoring schools in the area, Muhamed Aijaz Anjum, said he was familiar with the school’s plight. But he has no car or office, and his annual travel allowance is less than $200; he said he was helpless to do anything about it.

With few avenues for advancement in what remains a feudal society, many poor Pakistanis do not believe education will improve their lives. The dropout rate reflects that.

One of Mr. Ali’s best students, Muhamed Arshad Ali, was offered a state scholarship to continue after the fifth grade. His parents would not let him accept. He quit and took up work ironing pants for about 200 rupees a day, or $2.50.

“Many poor people think salaried jobs are only for rich people,” Mr. Ali said. “They don’t believe in the end result of education.”

In Punjab, the country’s most populous province, the despair and neglect have opened a space that religious schools have filled.

“Madrasas have been mushrooming,” said Zobaida Jalal, a member of Parliament and former education minister.

The phenomenon began in the 1980s, when General Zia gave madrasas money and land in an American-supported policy to help Islamic fighters against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

The Islamic schools are also seen as employment opportunities. “When someone doesn’t see a way ahead for himself, he builds a mosque and sits in it,” said Jan Sher, whose village in southwestern Punjab, Shadan Lund, has become a militant stronghold, with madrasas now outnumbering public schools.

Poverty has also helped expand enrollment in madrasas, which serve as a safety net by housing and feeding poor children.

“How can someone who earns 200 rupees a day afford expenses for five children?” asked Hafeezur Rehman, a caretaker in the Jamia Sadiqqia Taleemul Koran madrasa in Multan, the main city in south Punjab. The school houses and feeds 73 boys from poor villages.

Former President Pervez Musharraf tried to regulate the madrasas, offering financial incentives if they would add general subjects. But after taking the money, many refused to allow monitoring. “The madrasa reform project failed,” said Javed Ashraf Qazi, a retired general who served as education minister at the time.

Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, says he is acutely aware of the problem and is trying a different approach, recently setting aside $75 million to build free model schools in 80 locations close to large madrasas, a tactic General Qazi had also proposed.

In the district that includes Mohri Pur, a mud-walled village of about 6,000 where farmers drive on dirt roads in tractors and donkey carts piled high with sticks and grasses, there are an estimated 200 madrasas, one-third the number of public schools, said Mr. Anjum, the education official.

Nonreligious private schools have also sprouted since the 1990s. They have better student-teacher ratios, but only the most exclusive — out of reach of most middle-class Pakistanis — offer a rigorous, modern education.

Mr. Ali, the fifth-grade teacher, says the madrasas have changed Mohri Pur. They are Deobandi, adherents of an ultraorthodox Sunni school of thought that opposes music and festivals, which are central aspects of Sufism, a tolerant form of Islam that is traditional here.

There were no madrasas in Mohri Pur in the late 1980s, when Mr. Ali began teaching. Now there are at least five. Most are affiliated with a branch in the neighboring town of Kabirwala of Darul Uloom, a powerful Deobandi seminary founded in 1952, and whose leaders in other parts of Pakistan have links to the Taliban.

Several local residents said they believed the Kabirwala seminary was dangerous. Some of its members were involved in sectarian violence against Shiites in the 1990s, they said.

“People seem scared of them,” Mr. Ali said. “We don’t ask questions.”

Even if the madrasas do not make militants, they create a worldview that makes militancy possible. “The mindset wants to stop music, girls’ schools and festivals,” said Salman Abid, a social researcher in southern Punjab. “Their message is that this is not real life. Real life comes later” — after death.

On a recent Thursday, the Kabirwala seminary was buzzing with activity. Officials showed rooms of boys crouched over Korans, reading and rocking. A full kitchen had an industrial-size bread oven. Flowers adorned walkways. The foundation for a new dormitory had been broken.

There was also a girls’ section, with its own entrance, where hundreds of young women chanted in unison after directions from a male voice that came from behind a curtain. “We have a passion for this work,” said Seraj ul-Haq, a computer teacher who is part of the family that founded the seminary.Teachers preach restrictions. February’s newsletter set out a list of taboos: Valentine’s Day. Music. Urban women “wearing imported perfume.” Talking about women’s rights.

Suicide bombings were neither encouraged nor condemned.

The ideology may be rigid, but it offers the promise of respect, a powerful draw for lower-class young men.

Abed Omar, 24, had little religious education before he was inspired by a sermon at the seminary last year. Better educated than most, he began to work in his family’s sweets shop.

Restless and unfulfilled, he joined a conservative Islamic group, paying about $625 to travel with them around the country for four months on a preaching tour.

The group, Tablighi Jamaat, taught him that Islam forbids music and speaking with women. (He would speak to this reporter only through a male colleague.) American officials suspect that the group is a steppingstone to the Taliban. Pakistani officials say it is peaceful.

Now, when Mr. Omar visits his friends, “they turn off their tape players and give me their seat,” he said, a smile lifting his face, which, in the practice of some conservative Islamists, has a bushy beard but no mustache.

He is frustrated by a lack of opportunity and at how much of Pakistan’s bureaucracy requires political connections, which he does not have. “There is no merit,” he said.

His faith gives him hope. “I want to make everyone a preacher of Islam,” Mr. Omar said brightly, eating honey-soaked fritters in his family’s shop.

He knows about 100 people in his town who have done a four-month tour like his. As for those who sign up for less, he said “they are countless.”

Refugees on a wild frontier between army and Taliban

Islamabad's war with its militants is destroying lives and dislocating communities, as civilians flee in rising numbers
Declan Walsh in Totalai, Buner,
Two hours' drive from downtown Islamabad, with its leafy avenues and upmarket restaurants, a chain of jagged mountains in North-West Frontier Province marks the frontline of Pakistan's war with the Taliban.

A flood of refugees spills down from the hills and on to the plains at the edge of war-torn Buner district, bringing tales of bloodshed and destruction. Many are angry at the Pakistani army which, they say, has shelled homes and mistakenly killed civilians.

In Totalai, on the southern edge of Buner, a clutch of angry men piled off an overloaded tractor pulling a trailer filled with burka-clad women clutching cloth sacks and exhausted children.

"At night we are bombarded by the big guns and in the day by the helicopters," said Muhammad Saleh, a farmer, gesticulating wildly. They had come from Nawagai, a village caught in the crossfire, he said, pointing to a teenager with a bandaged leg, injured by army shelling.

"They should use smaller weapons. They are trying to hit a pigeon with a cannon," he said.

On another vehicle, a 30-year-old teacher, Abdul Aziz, said the head of Nawagai secondary school, Bakht Garim Shah, had been shot in his car by a helicopter gunship as he returned from an examination centre. "There were three other people with him and all were killed. And on the television the government was calling them suicide bombers!" he said. "Now we can't even get their corpses."

Last Friday, a day after the alleged incident took place, a military spokesman said the army had destroyed eight "suicide vehicles" and six vehicles containing fleeing militants.

Other refugees backed the operation, despite its heavy toll. Zakir, a 22-year-old computer store clerk, said his village, Swari, was straining under food shortages and a 24-hour curfew. But life under the Taliban had been worse, he said.

After seizing control last month, militants had robbed two banks, closed barber shops, banned music and forced people to disable their satellite television receivers, he said. They had tried to impose a crude form of justice, threatening to flog a man alleged to have made a sexual advance to another. "This is not right. There is no [use of] force in Islam," said Zakir, speaking from the safety of a house where he had taken shelter.

A journalist from the main town, Daggar, said the Taliban stole women's jewellery at gunpoint, occupied several marble factories and looted the homes of tribesmen who had dared to oppose them.

There is no official estimate of the number of refugees, but it is thought to be thousands. Many are being welcomed into Buner by al-Khidmat, the charity wing of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the country's largest religious party. Volunteers offer food, drink and an Islamist-tinged critique of the situation.

"They should not have launched this operation. The problem could be solved through negotiation," said Ghuluam Mustafa, a JI official and deputy mayor of Buner district.

Further north, along the border, on the edge of the fighting, there were no refugees. In Rustum, the army had set up artillery to fire on Taliban positions in the Ambela pass, scene of the heaviest fighting. On Saturday afternoon the main street was empty and most shops shuttered. But Muhammad Javed, an elderly watch repairman, kept his door open.

The sound of shelling, from a nearby field, was keeping him awake at night, he complained. "Our people are not bad," he said. "It's just our terrible system of governance that has caused all this."

Down the road, Khalid Khan, a teacher and landowner, said the fighting had upset his nightly sessions of online Scrabble. Instead of playing with fellow enthusiasts in England, he said, he used his internet connection to share the sound of battle with them. "Obviously they were pretty shocked," he said.

Khan said the battle was "critical" to Pakistan's future, but US fears of a Taliban takeover in Islamabad, 55 miles to the south, were ill-informed. "The concept that this is an organised army, moving towards the capital, is just wrong," he said.

Last night, though, more fighting loomed as a peace pact in neighbouring Swat hung by a thread. Tensions rose as armed Taliban started patrols in the main town, Mingora. They beheaded two security personnel and blew up a bridge; the government imposed a curfew.

President Asif Ali Zardari, who flies to Washington this week for talks with President Barack Obama, urgently needs a victory. US officials, dangling $400m in aid, have been sharply critical of his government. But it is not just Zardari's fault. Earlier efforts to tackle militancy have been hampered by poor strategy and, sometimes, the ambivalence of those fighting the battles.

Among a small number of refugees in Rustum was a paramilitary soldier with the Frontier Constabulary who said he had surrendered to the Taliban after his platoon was overrun at the Pir Baba sufi shrine last week.

The soldier, who requested anonymity, said the Taliban treated him surprisingly well – offering food, tea, a torch and even a bus fare home. The shalwar kameez he was wearing had been donated by a Talib who took his uniform, he said.

The experience made him develop a certain sympathy for the militants, he said with a shy smile. "From what I heard them say, and what I saw, I feel we are in the wrong," he said.

Pakistan is a US crisis that Islamabad needs to make its own

By David Ignatius
Daily Star
President Barack Obama convened a crisis meeting at the White House last Monday to hear a report from Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had just returned from Pakistan. Mullen described the worrying situation there, with Taliban insurgents moving closer to the capital, Islamabad.

"It had gotten significantly worse than I expected as the Swat deal unraveled," Mullen explained in an interview. He was referring to a truce brokered in February in the Swat Valley, about 100 miles north of Islamabad. The Pakistani military had expected that the ceasefire would subdue Taliban fighters in Swat. Instead, the Muslim militants surged south into the district of Buner, on the doorstep of the capital.

Listening to Mullen's report at the White House were two senior officials - Defense Secretary Robert Gates and special envoy Richard Holbrooke - who were serving in government back in 1979, when a Muslim insurgency toppled the Iranian government, with harmful consequences that persist to this day. The two policy veterans "made the argument that it's worth studying the Iran model," recalls a senior official who took part in the White House meeting.

This was Pakistan week for the administration's foreign-policy team, behind the self-congratulatory hubbub over the first 100 days. At a Wednesday news conference, Obama said he was "gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan." He said his biggest worry was that "the civilian government there right now is very fragile."

The challenge in Pakistan is eerily similar to what the Carter administration faced with Iran: How to encourage the military to take decisive action against a Muslim insurgency without destroying the country's nascent democracy. And there's a deeper psychological factor, too: How to exercise US power effectively without triggering a backlash from a proud and prickly Muslim population that is scarred by what it sees as a history of American meddling.

"My experience is that knocking them hard [the Pakistani government and military] isn't going to work," said Mullen. "The harder we push, the further away they get." For the crackdown on the Taliban to be successful, he said, "It has to be their will, not ours."

What encourages US officials is that recent events have been a wake-up call for a Pakistani elite in denial about the Taliban threat. One top civilian official said he was less worried now than three weeks ago, because the military and civilian leaders in Islamabad have realized the danger they face. The Pakistani military has begun an effort to push back the Taliban, albeit with mixed results. The Taliban responded fiercely to an assault last Tuesday in Buner and seized three police stations, kidnapping dozens of police and paramilitary troops.

"My biggest concern is whether they [the Pakistani government] will sustain it," Mullen said. He has told his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Kiyani, that "we are prepared to assist whenever they want." During his recent visit, Mullen toured two Pakistani counterinsurgency training camps and came away impressed.

Mullen said he hopes the Pakistanis will adopt a classic three-part counterinsurgency strategy - clearing areas of Taliban control; holding those areas with enough troops so that the local population feels secure; and then building through economic development, with US help.

Politically, the US is looking increasingly to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Muslim League dominates the crucial Punjab region. Officials note that 60 percent of the Pakistani population lives in Punjab, and that Sharif has a popularity rating over 80 percent there. President Asif Ali Zardari is far weaker, politically, and that worries the Obama administration. He'll visit Washington this week to discuss the crisis with the US president.

US officials are exploring ways to reduce the political strain on Zardari caused by US drone attacks on Al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the tribal areas. Pakistanis protest these attacks as violations of sovereignty, even though they have been blessed in secret by Zardari's government. This tension could be eased by some public formula for dual control. Explains a senior Obama administration official: "We're looking at how we might find some common way ahead where utilization of the asset could benefit the Pakistanis."

The growing crisis mentality in Washington poses its own threat to a sound Pakistan policy. It could produce red-hot American rhetoric and a corresponding US impatience - and that, in turn, would only make the Pakistanis more uneasy. Success depends on Islamabad's recognition that it's their problem, and that they must act decisively.

Once welcoming, Pakistan city fears Taliban rise

The Associated Press
At the entrance to Peshawar, a young man on the side of the road offers a prayer, while on the bridge overhead three men videotape him.
They could be friends in Peshawar for the first time, perhaps from a nearby village. But that isn't my first thought.
My first thought is, maybe he is a suicide bomber setting off on a mission.
I make a mental note of his appearance — maybe 5 feet, eight inches, brownish-beige shalwar kameez, mustache, no beard, maybe 20 years old, maybe younger. They say most suicide bombers are 18- and 19-year-olds, poor, disaffected.
I decide to quietly, gently roll down my window, just an inch, thinking that if there's an explosion — from the young lad I just saw or any number of other directions — the opening will reduce the effect of the concussion. It could perhaps prevent the windows from shattering into deadly shards, unless of course the explosion is right next to the car, and then I guess it doesn't matter.
It has been 22 years since I lived in Peshawar, a city of one million people close to the border of Afghanistan. In the early morning traffic, noisy diesel-belching rickshaws weave past screeching buses with people hanging off the side. Horns blare as cars bump up against horse-drawn carts straining under the weight of half a dozen people crammed onto a seat made for three.
But what strikes me most is the palpable fear that now hangs over the city.
The Taliban insurgency is spreading from the wild, ungoverned border region close to Afghanistan into urban Pakistan. Peshawar, the commercial and cultural hub of the frontier province, is on the front line. Some say it is under siege. It has that feel to it.
Bit by bit the militants are creeping farther into Pakistan. Last month they dumped the headless body of a police officer on the road to Peshawar. This month they blew up a mosque frequented by security men who stood guard at a post across the street. The men had just knelt in prayer when the bomb ripped through the building and killed dozens.
That's how they start, with the police and the security officers. Then they go after the people — the businessmen, the musicians, the teachers and children in the schools.
Just last week, a powerful bomb flattened 30 shops on the edge of Peshawar. The owners of theaters and music shops have received letters warning them to close or be destroyed.
Even former friends are frightened. One former Taliban from a small gunmaking town barely 20 miles from Peshawar says he is terrified of his one-time colleagues.
"I don't mind being blown up, but it's the beheadings that scare me," he says. "And no one, not the police, no one can stop them."
Women who used to wear large shawls now rarely emerge without the all-enveloping burqa. Musicians have fled. Schools have been blown up, and young men roam the Peshawar University campus to harass girls seeking education.
In a posh neighborhood of Hayatabad, an Iranian diplomat was kidnapped and the Afghan ambassador-elect taken by armed men. Residents are under self-imposed lockdown after dark. Belligerent young men from nearby religious schools knock on doors at prayer time, telling people to go to the mosque.
Peshawar's people used to be the most hospitable around — they would stop you on the street and invite you into their homes for tea. It doesn't happen today. Foreigners are targeted, and that makes locals nervous to be around them.
Peshawar has always been linked to Afghanistan through trails in the mountains that run like a jagged spine between the two countries. When I first came here in 1986, the trails were used by Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviet Red Army that had invaded their country. Then, Russia was the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen were Cold War heroes, helped by U.S. money.
In those days, heavily armed, praying young men, their Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, weren't looked on with suspicion and fear. No, they were seen with admiration and even a little romanticism, because they were fighting the good fight.
The enemy was the communist Russians. The friends — or, as President Ronald Reagan liked to call them, the freedom fighters — were the religious young men taking up arms. The sight of them praying five times a day was a comforting image, a symbol of a battle between holy warriors and godless communists.
Not any more.
The bearded men with guns have become a nightmare, and now their prayer is a reminder of the terror they are willing to inflict in the name of their harsh brand of Islam.
My thoughts return to the young man praying on the outskirts of Peshawar, his clothes covered in dust from a nearby construction site. And I think, my, how times have changed.