Pakistan's Islamic schools resist expulsion order

Posted in Broader Middle East | 30-Dec-05 | Author: Imtiaz Gul

Foreign Islamic religious students sit inside the Jamia Binoria madrasa or seminary in Karachi.

· Ban on foreign students followed London bombs
· Leaders claim Musharraf ruling is discriminatory

Leaders of Pakistan's 13,000 madrasas have vowed to defy a government deadline to expel foreign students by December 31, saying the regulations discriminate against religious schools.

President Pervez Musharraf required Pakistan's madrasas to expel about 1,800 foreign students after the July 7 bombings in London highlighted the extremist links of some schools. Three of the London bombers were of Pakistani descent, and the Aldgate bomber, Shehzad Tanweer, attended a Lahore madrasa that has since been linked to Islamist militants.

But Wifaqul-Madaris, the umbrella organisation for the madrasas, fears the move would throttle many schools and backfire on the authorities. "There will be renewed crackdowns against the seminaries, but we will continue to oppose the registration and the expulsion as a matter of principle," said Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a hardline cleric at the Lal Masjid seminary in Islamabad.

Mr Ghazi, who is wanted by the authorities because of alleged al-Qaida links but preaches openly in the heart of Islamabad, fears that any coercive measure against religious institutions would undermine whatever good the process could have achieved. He believes Gen Musharraf's drive against foreign students was "motivated by the desires of his masters [the United States]".

Most religious-political organisations, many of whom also run madrasas, accuse Gen Musharraf of following a US-led agenda against them under the cover of the "war against terror".

Leaders and activists of organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan, and Sipahe Mohammad have been opposed to Musharraf since he banned them in January 2002.

At least 1,000 students have returned to their countries since the deadline was issued in July, but there is no precise figure for the number of foreigners remaining. Most are from Afghanistan, central Asia, south-east Asia and Africa. The interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, told Reuters that 65% of foreign students had left and insisted the government would not extend its deadline.

Following several rounds of negotiations between the government and the madrasas' representatives, many moderate schools have registered. Under the new laws the madrasas' accounts are subject to audits, and they are barred from teaching or publishing hate materials.

But Hanif Jullandri, convener of the madrasa body ITMD, said the rules were a "discriminatory policy", since they only affected students at religious schools. "General Musharraf's deadline doesn't matter much ... it is cruel and unjust to force foreign students out who possess legal documents," he said. "None of them is wanted or suspected of involvement in any criminal or terrorist act." ITMD will meet in Islamabad on January 1 to discuss how to defy the government on the issue.

Pakistan's madrasas traditionally provide food, education and accommodation for boys from poor families, but since September 11 2001 they have been accused of acting as recruiting grounds for militants. They saw their most dramatic increase in the 80s, when many were funded by western and Arab countries to recruit Muslim volunteers to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The number of foreign students fell after 2001, when Pakistan tightened up visa regulations in response to the September 11 attacks.