Sunday 17 July 2005

Pakistan: Still Schooling Extremists

This is a piece I wrote with my Crisis Group colleague, Samina Ahmed, following the London 7/7 bombings, and which we published in The Washington Post on 17 July 2005.


Although investigations into the terrorist attacks in London are still at an early stage, it is already clear that at least one of the bombers attended a radical Islamic school, or madrasa, in Pakistan. For those in the West who believed President Pervez Musharraf's promises to clean up the militant religious schools, it is time to think again.

Shehzad Tanweer, who police say killed six people and himself on the Circle Line train near Aldgate station on July 7, recently spent as long as four months in a madrasa reportedly run by the avowedly militant group Lashkar-i-Taiba in Lahore, Pakistan. The madrasa and the organization operate freely despite an official ban on their activity since 2002.

Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, the link between Pakistan's religious education system and international terrorist organizations came under intense scrutiny. Musharraf clearly felt the pressure to be seen as doing something, and in January 2002 he gave a televised speech promising a series of measures to combat extremism by, among other things, bringing all madrasas into the mainstream. Musharraf pledged increased oversight of the religious schools through formal registration, control of their funding and standardization of their curricula.

The world welcomed those promises, but few then checked back to see if they were ever fulfilled. A conventional wisdom developed, especially in the United States, that Musharraf was doing all he could to help fight terrorism -- Musharraf even became something of a media hero, our brave ally in the war on terrorism. The view that all is well with Pakistan has been bolstered most recently by a World Bank-funded report claiming, against other available evidence, that the country's madrasa sector is smaller than previously estimated and suggesting that the religious schools pose no serious threat.

London on 7/7 shows that analysis was deadly wrong. Jihadi extremism is still propagated at radical madrasas in Pakistan. These religious schools still preach an insidious doctrine that foments the sectarian violence that is increasingly a threat to the stability of Pakistan. And now, it seems, the hatred these madrasas breed is spilling blood in Western cities as well.

Musharraf's promises came to nothing. His military government never implemented any program to register the madrasas, follow their financing or control their curricula. Although there are a few "model madrasas" 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.

Whether or not it turns out to have been part of the London bombing story, Lashkar-i-Taiba is an excellent example of how Musharraf's government has failed to curb extremist religious militants. Formed by Arab-influenced veterans of the Afghan jihad in 1988, the group enjoyed the military's patronage in its jihad against India in Kashmir. Though formally banned in 2002, Lashkar-i-Taiba simply renamed itself Jamaat ul-Dawa and continued its activities, including the promotion of jihad in Kashmir, where it has openly claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks.

The organization's leader, Hafiz Sayeed, was temporarily detained, but only under Pakistan's Maintenance of Public Order legislation, not its much more stringent Anti-Terrorism Act, and he was soon released. Prominent figures from this and other formally banned groups such as Sipah-i-Sahaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed appear to enjoy virtual immunity from the law.

That Musharraf has not acted against religious extremists and their madrasas is hardly surprising. He needs the religious parties to bolster his military dictatorship against the democratic forces seeking to reverse his 1999 coup. The radicals maintain their avenues for propagating their militant ideas, because the chief patrons of jihad, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islami and the Jamiat-i-Islami political parties, have acquired prominent and powerful roles in Musharraf's political structure.

Those who would still attempt to defend Musharraf's record on fighting Islamist militancy in recent years would point out that Pakistan has captured or killed some 600 al Qaeda members since 2001. True enough, but with an extensive madrasa system left untouched, the key question posed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's leaked memo from October 2003 comes naturally to mind: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"

Until Pakistan's madrasas are truly reformed, the answer to Rumsfeld's question will be "no."

Samina Ahmed is South Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group. Andrew Stroehlein is Crisis Group's Media Director.

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