AKORA KHATTAK, Pakistan — Few would be likely to think of the phrase “old school tie” in connection with the Taliban — but in fact one university has more clout in Afghan ruling circles than Harvard or Yale ever has had in the United States.
That school is Jaamia Haqqania, located not in Afghanistan, but in the dusty little town of Akora Khattak in northwest Pakistan, not far from the Afghan border.
Not only was most of the current Taliban leadership educated here, this school is seen as the spiritual center of gravity for the movement and its philosophy.
Jaamia Haqqania sees itself that way. So much so that when, in the summer of 1998, the Taliban were in trouble after an embarrassing military defeat at the hands of a rival Muslim group in the north of the country, the university's chancellor, Moulana Sami-ul-Haq, sprang into action.
He closed the school and sent all able-bodied students and teachers to Afghanistan. They were joined by students from other schools, and in the end, 5,000 volunteers helped turn the tide in favor of the Taliban.
The school itself is small by American standards. There are only about 1,500 students — all male. Every year, something like 15,000 new students apply, and only 400 are admitted. Nearly half the slots are reserved for boys from Afghanistan, Central Asia, and other Muslim countries.
Jaamia is a combination of a high school and a university. Indeed, most students here end their education after high school, while others go on to take college level courses in different religious subjects. A select few go on to advanced studies and a doctorate.
The school itself was founded in 1947 soon after the creation of mainly Muslim Pakistan. Today, it consists of many sprawling buildings, including classrooms and department headquarters and a series of hostels for the students.
Students from Afghanistan know that a degree from what is often nicknamed “Taliban U” is a sure ticket to a choice job in the Taliban government. The old school tie concept works here too but with a difference. Here it is the turban network. The graduates are awarded a turban and a diploma at the time of graduation.
This is not a school where anyone goes to socialize — or to get a “Gentleman's C.” It has a rigorous curriculum based on various disciplines of Islam. Science, social studies, history, comparative religions, or any other subject outside the narrow realm of religion are seen as not important.
Studies are so intense there is essentially no time for any extracurricular activity. Whenever students have a little extra time, they tend to play soccer, volleyball, or just lounge around. Though some western journalists have charged that military training is part of the curriculum, there was no evidence of that, and school officials flatly denied that is the case.
Presiding over the entire university is Moulana Sami-ul-Haq, a cleric in his 50s with a henna-dyed blazing red beard, a green turban, and bright penetrating eyes. He is an extremely self-confident man who is easy to talk to and who manages a wide-ranging portfolio of jobs and responsibilities. Besides being head of the university, he heads a Pakistani religious political party, as well as heading efforts to bring all the major religious parties together on one platform.
He isn't too fond of the western press these days, especially after a rather uncomplimentary cover story in the New York Times Magazine a few months before my visit that labeled Jaamia “the Jihad University.”
Yet he seemed to be genuinely pleased to see me, perhaps because he did not have to worry about explaining the various cultural and religious nuances. When I left, he provided me with a packet of personal letters of introduction that were invaluable in opening doors in Afghanistan. In one, the Moulana asked rank-and-file Taliban workers to extend me every possible courtesy and aid in my travel throughout the nation.
That alone would have been enough to open every door.
His world-view is what you might expect. He believes that the Taliban are the true Muslims and that their interpretation of Islam is correct and to the point.
The Moulana thinks there is an international conspiracy, led by the West, to thwart the Islamic revolution — but he is sure that time and history is on their side and that eventually Pakistan will follow the Taliban and establish an Islamic order as well.
However, when asked about the delicate issue of his attitude toward Shiite Muslims, he said he would be willing to work with them for the sake of national unity.
While the Taliban have been implicated in the massacre of the Shiite Hazaras in the north of Afghanistan and their sympathizers have fanned the sectarian violence against the Shiite in Pakistan, the Taliban have at least publicly proclaimed that their non-Muslim Hindu and Sikh minorities are fully free to practice their faiths.
“[There] is not any kind of discrimination,'' said Mohammed Suhail Shaheen, deputy head of the Afghan Embassy in Pakistan. “They [the Hindus] can carry out their rituals as before. They will enjoy full rights.”
Afghanistan has had a long history of vibrant and prosperous Hindu and Sikh communities. Many of them have lived in the country for generations and have integrated well into the greater Afghan community.
During the civil war, a great number of them fled the country. About 5,000 remain in the capital. There are at least 15 functioning Hindu and Sikh temples in Kabul.
Most were and are traders and businessmen who ran the cloth, currency, and gold markets in all the major cities. Ram Saran, a third generation Afghan Hindu who runs a photography shop, could pass for any other Afghan on the street.
What does he think of the Taliban? On the whole, he was favorable. During the period of anarchy, he and his family had endured extortion and kidnappings for ransom just as other Afghans had. Now, at last, they can live in peace. Last month, there was a spate of unfavorable publicity when the Taliban decreed that Hindu and other religious minorities should wear distinctive patches on their clothing. To many in the West, it evoked the frightening memory of the Nazis forcing Jews to wear the Star of David.
The patches are apparently designed to prevent other Afghans from accidentally trampling on the rights of the minorities, who — except for the Sikhs with their colorful turbans — are largely indistinguishable.
There have been more than a few cases of Hindus being forcibly herded into mosques at prayer time by members of the religious police.