ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, AP – In a posh district of Pakistan”s capital, down a leafy street from the homes of officials and foreign diplomats, hundreds of bearded Islamic students donning prayer caps scurry barefoot to their next Quran lesson at the Red Mosque madrassa.
The government has little clout inside the seminary walls despite President Gen. Pervez Musharraf”s latest bid to control religious extremism by regulating the country”s estimated 13,000 religious schools, long regarded as a recruiting base for "holy war."
"We will not stop teaching jihad (holy war) just because America does not like it," said the madrassa”s head, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who derided the Pakistani military leader as "an agent of America."
This week, an umbrella group representing most of the madrassas said they would reject a government campaign launched last month to register the schools by the year”s end, amid concern they would have to reveal their sources of funding. The government has threatened them with closure if they fail to register.
"It”s our job to see what goes on inside (madrassas), not the government”s," said Abdul Malik, a cleric and opposition lawmaker who chaired a meeting Monday of the leaders of the five main schools of Islamic thought taught at the seminaries.
Madrassas provide free schooling and board to at least 1.1 million students, many of them from poor families ill-served by the state education system in this impoverished country of 150 million. But their rapid growth in recent years, and the malign influence of some madrassas, has caused international alarm.
On the face of it, there”s little reason for madrassa chiefs to resist registration.
They only have to fill out a one-page form — distributed to thousands of madrassas in mid-August — giving the school”s name, contact details, the number of students and the names of its administrators. There”s no requirement to identify students, teachers or donors.
They register under the 1860 Societies Act, amended last month to require seminaries to submit an annual audit and refrain from teaching militancy. But there”s no provision in the colonial-era law for closing a school if it fails to comply.
Musharraf, who has won Western praise for his muscular crackdown on al-Qaida, confirmed to The Associated Press last week that one of the suicide bombers who killed 52 people in July 7 attacks on London”s transport network visited one of the seminaries — believed linked to one of Pakistan”s most-established Islamic militant groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Some hardline schools are also thought to be a source of recruits for Taliban rebels fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Indian security forces in Kashmir and fomenting sectarian rivalries between Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan.
After the London bombings, Musharraf vowed to deport 1,400 foreign students from madrassas, modernize the schools and shut those that spawn "sectarian hatred and militancy" — renewing a similar promise made in January 2002 after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he abandoned Pakistan”s support of the Taliban and backed the U.S.-invasion of Afghanistan.
The 2002 reform campaign fell flat, and madrassa chiefs again appear undaunted.
Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group think tank advocates a tougher approach. She said there had been a fourfold growth in madrassas in the past decade, and criticized Musharraf for failing to back his latest tough rhetoric with effective legislation and action.
She estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of madrassas were recruiting grounds for jihadis — such as the school near the eastern city of Lahore visited by the London bomber — and were beyond reform and would have to be closed.
Ghazi, sitting cross-legged in an office at the Red Mosque Madrassa in a lush corner of Islamabad — just a few hundred yards from the sprawling bungalows of Pakistan”s interior minister and disgraced nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan — was unabashed in his sympathies for the Taliban, though he denied his students go to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"The government says that we will all register by the end of the year. They have been saying that for the last three years," he said.
Although the registration process does not address the fundamental problem of militants emerging from the seminaries, it is seen as one of the government”s first steps to bring the madrassas under control.
Vakil Ahmad Khan, secretary at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, makes no apology for the soft approach.
"The government wants to use persuasion, not the threat of force," he said. "If it did, it would only face resistance from the madrassas. We want to avoid it."
Most of the madrassas have links to powerful religious groups who strongly oppose Musharraf and the fear is that those groups will only gain support from a tougher crackdown on the seminaries.
Khan said about $33.5 million of government money was available to help registered madrassas pay for computers and the salaries of teachers of mainstream subjects such as English and Urdu languages, math and computer science.
He hoped this would give the government leverage over madrassas, which currently fund themselves independently through contributions from rich Muslims in Pakistan — and reportedly from Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Ahmed of the International Crisis said it was in Pakistan”s own interests to effectively regulate the schools so they provide students better suited to the job market — an aim the government says it shares.
"How many preachers does a country need?" she said.