December 21, 2007
Pakistan: The New Taliban
BY Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Editor's Note: As campaigning continues for Pakistan's pivotal January 8 parliamentary elections, FRONTLINE/World reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy files the third in a series of dispatches -- this one focusing on the rise of fundamentalist political forces challenging President Musharraf's government.
On the streets of Karachi, the religious political parties are campaigning hard for the January elections. Their army of madrassa (Islamic school) students are wall chalking, hanging banners, handing out leaflets and encouraging people to bring the Islamists to power.
The religious parties have reason to believe that they may be victorious. In the 2002 elections, they made formidable gains -- for the first time in the country's history they took control of a quarter of the seats in parliament. Their aim this time: To win majority control of parliament and elect their own Prime Minister.
The religious parties have reason to believe that they may be victorious. In the 2002 elections, they made formidable gains.
There are as many as 10,000 Islamic schools in Karachi alone. Though the religious parties say they forbid political activities on their campuses, that's not what I found when I visited one such school in Sohrab Goth, a very poor area on the edge of Karachi.
This is a vast, sprawling, dusty neighborhood, which came into existence in the early 1980s when refugees from the war in Afghanistan poured into camps set up by the Pakistani government. The camps are long gone. Now a mix of second generation Afghans and Pakistanis live here in concrete buildings. A traditionally conservative area, women seldom leave their homes unaccompanied by men, and the Afghan traditional blue burqa is the norm.
I arrived at Jamia Baitul Muqadas in Sohrab Goth on a crisp December morning at the invitation of its headmaster Maulana Mohammad Ghayas, who is contesting the upcoming elections. The maulana wanted to show me that he ran a liberal Islamic school, that Islamic religious parties were not a threat to the country, and that once elected they were going to bring peace and prosperity.
Headmaster Maulana Mohammad Ghayas says he runs a liberal Islamic school.
Some madrassas are opening up their doors in an effort to allay the fears of those who believe that these institutions are hot beds of fundamentalist activities. Many madrassas forbid female journalists but I was allowed to walk freely through the halls of the school and speak to any of the students I chose to.
Classes were in full swing when I arrived, children as young as five were enrolled. As I passed one of the classes, I saw a teacher berating a student. He was holding a large pipe in his hand, ready to strike. When he saw me, he dropped it. Madrassa teachers have a reputation of being harsh to their students. Severe corporal punishments are handed out in the name of Islam.
The maulana on his tour insisted that the religious school was not a training ground for militants as people in the West thought. He was right in one sense: There were no weapons lying around. But the Islamic schools, even those without direct links to violence, promote an ideology that provides religious justification for violent attacks. An entire generation of Pakistanis is growing up in these madrassas, devoid of any critical thinking, and developing severe hatred for anything Western. These Pakistanis are the backbone of the religious parties and they have the street power to paralyze cities.
An entire generation of Pakistanis is growing up in these madrassas, devoid of any critical thinking, and developing severe hatred for anything Western.
In 2002, President Musharraf vowed to reform the madrassa system and its curriculum. Foreign students were to be registered with the government and the classroom content was to be vetted. Five years later, his plans have failed. Maulana Ghayas declared that the president could not control the madrassas because they were not funded by the government and did not rely on their resources. "We are an independent body," he told me. "We rely on private donations, how can the president control us? We will never listen to him."
At the madrassa I met 25-year-old Khan Sahab, an Afghani by birth, who told me that Pakistan's true identity had been distorted by President Musharraf. "He thinks that Kamal Ataturk [the father of the modern Turkish republic] should be Pakistan's mascot. Our ideal is our Prophet Mohammad, not some secular Turkish man." Khan had spent the past four years studying at this madrassa, and he hoped that the headmaster would win the elections. "President Musharraf has women on television, there is no Shariah law here, women can walk around amongst men, we will change all of that when our leaders come to power. That is the true destiny of Pakistan."
Many who attend the religious schools are proud to be associated with the Taliban.
Downstairs, before the call to prayers, I met with 14-year-old Saeed Shah, who had seven siblings all studying at various madrassas around the city. "I am proud to say that I am a Taliban," he told me. "A Taliban is not what you people think he is, he is a true Muslim, only America has made him to look like a villain. To us a Taliban is a hero, a true defender of Islam."
The headmaster, Muhammad Ghayas, belongs to Pakistan's largest Islamic political party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, which gained prominence in the 1970s when it played a vital role in assisting the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets. Today, The Jamiat is known to have links with the Taliban on the Pakistan as well as the Afghan side of the border. In the past two years the party assisted Musharraf's government in negotiating a peace deal with the insurgents in the tribal belt of Waziristan.
Though the party's leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, is a suave politician and is not opposed to working with the more secular parties in Pakistani politics, his followers are more hard line. They want an Islamic Shariah-run government more severe than Saudi Arabia's.
An active Islamist insurgency in the tribal belt has spilled over to other areas like the Swat Valley. There are bomb blasts on a daily basis; hundreds of Pakistanis have lost their lives in recent months.
They may be well on their way. Already an active Islamist insurgency in the tribal belt has spilled over to other areas like the Swat Valley. There are bomb blasts on a daily basis; hundreds of Pakistanis have lost their lives in recent months. In some areas in the northwest, women are forbidden to work and attend schools. Barbershops have been closed down, CD and DVD stores burnt. Renegade FM radio stations are broadcasting calls for Jihad.
Musharraf's government has been slow to control religious extremism in Karachi and the rest of the country. This has emboldened the religious parties and leaders like Maulana Ghayas who feel the time is ripe to bring about an Islamic revolution. Not through violence, he told me, but by the ballot.
Camera: Mahera Omar, Sohail Ahmed
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