In Pakistan, a complex picture emerges of the influence and scope
of Islamic religious schools, or madrassas, which are often portrayed
as incubators of extreme ideology.
estimate that madrassas number in the thousands in Pakistan and
a debate remains as to what influence these schools have on terrorism
and instability around the world.
Daniel Markey, senior fellow for India and Pakistan at the Council
on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. State Department official,
said madrassas have always been a part of Pakistan and other parts
of the Muslim world. They have served as training institutions
for Islamic clerics for hundreds of years.
"For every strand of Islam there is a madrassa. There could
be 10,000 madrassas in Pakistan," Markey said.
A madrassa can range in size from five students sitting under
a tree to a large complex with a mosque and dormitories. The schools
also differ widely in curriculum and scope -- from the oft-publicized
training ground for extremist fighters to that of a Koran memorization
institution or an elite educational system, according to Vali
Nasr, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the
Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Tufts University.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and revelations
that members of the Afghanistan's Taliban regime attended Pakistani
madrassas, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf pledged to
bring the schools under control.
Samina Ahmed and Andrew Storehlein of the International Crisis
Group argued in a July 17, 2005, column in the Washington Post
that Musharraf has failed to meet his promise.
"[Musharraf's] military government never implemented any
program to register the madrassas, follow their financing or control
their curricula. Although there are a few 'model madrassas' for
Western media consumption, the extremist ones account for perhaps
as many as 15 percent of the religious schools in Pakistan and
are free to churn out their radicalized graduates," they
Controlling the schools via financing is challenging since they
often receive funding from foreign sources, which are difficult
to trace. In addition, Zakat -- the term for a Muslim charity
donation, which is one of the key components of the religion --
is often sent to the schools from local residents, Markey said.
While it is not clear exactly what percentage of Pakistani madrassas
may produce extremist fighters, experts agree that the schools
exist to fill a void in a badly weakened education system.
"I think if I had to identify one problem with standard
reporting on madrassas, it's always this belief that madrassas
in general are the problem and I think most Pakistanis would say
that they aren't the problem," Markey said. "In a country
like Pakistan, the education system [has] been so neglected and
hollowed out over decades of under funding and management that
they've come in to fill the gap."
While a religious education is valued in Pakistan, some schools
do little more than train illiterate students to memorize the
Koran, leaving many madrassa students on the edges of educated
society with poor job skills.
Madrassas that are used to train sectarian fighters for conflicts
in Kashmir and Afghanistan are a significant problem, Nasr said,
but madrassas in general are the not the cause of terrorism.
The radical madrassas in Pakistan have been utilized in the past
by the military as a supply of fighters for foreign conflicts,
such as during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, according to
But when the radicalized jihadists launch attacks on the Pakistani
public, the military is then forced to turn around and combat
them. "It is like playing with cobras: sooner or later they
will bite you," Nasr said.
One highly publicized encounter took place in July 2007 at the
Red Mosque, a radical madrassa in Islamabad where students listened
to theocratic ideology from religious leaders and were instructed
to kidnap prostitutes, according to a Washington Post report.
A standoff between madrassa students and government forces ended
with Pakistani troops raiding the mosque, resulting in the deaths
of nearly 100 people.
The real issue for Pakistan is the struggle between democracy
and military dictatorship, not between Musharraf and extremism,
Markey believes general Pakistani society is not so radicalized
as to allow Islamic extremists to run the country, and that the
strength of the Pakistani military is helping keep the radicals
Musharraf is operating a country on a fault line between those
who see the U.S.-led war on terrorism as a war against them, and
those who view the extremist element in the country as undermining
the traditional but moderate practice of Islam, Markey said.
The vast majority of Pakistanis do not fall into either he camp,
he added. Varieties of mystical and local Islamic traditions are
combined with South Asian culture to produce what many Pakistanis
view as their unique brand of Islam.