SECOND IN A SERIES
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - To the Western world, madrassas are frightening, dreary places, where children memorize the Qur'an by rote, and the curriculum is mostly a recipe for fanaticism.
But for millions of children in this part of the world, they are the only chance at education they will ever have.
After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, large sums of money flowed into Pakistan to rehabilitate and educate Afghan children who were growing up in refugee camps in Pakistan. Most of the money came from Saudi Arabia; along with it came the strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. The schools served twin purposes of imparting religious education and preparing them to fight against the Soviets.
The number of madrassas had swelled from 900 to more than 34,000. For many impoverished children, Afghan and Pakistani, this was their only chance to get any education at all.
Traditionally, government schools have offered a broad education that includes the study of Islam. Most educated Pakistanis are the product of either these, or privately run elite schools. Now there is enormous pressure from the Bush Administration to change certain parts of the curriculum in all Pakistani schools. Specifically, Washington wants all references to holy war removed.
Congress has passed bills that have language to that effect.
To many Pakistanis this is high handedness and blackmail.
One gets a strong sense of that from Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the head of Pakistan's biggest and well-organized religio-political party Jamaat Islami.
Jamaat Islami was founded in 1940, before Pakistan and India were independent from Great Britain. In the mid 1970s, the party put its weight behind the so-called Islamization process initiated by General Zia ul Haq.
In return, Jamaat got some key cabinet appointments, and the party led a measure of respectability and legitimacy to the government.
Pakistani religious parties have had a checkered past. Historically they commanded the mosques, but their performance at the polls was dismal. That changed, however, after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Cashing in on overwhelming anti-American sentiment, a coalition of religious parties swept the polls in two of the four provinces in Pakistan. Qazi Hussain Ahmad's Jamaat Islami is one of the main coalition partners, and he is coalition chairman. As such he has had a major influence on the provincial governments of the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan.
We met in a hotel just outside the walled city of Peshawar. With his flowing white beard and infectious smile, Qazi Sahib, as he is popularly known, can be disarmingly charming.
He thinks General Pervez Musharraf has sold out to the United States and Pakistan has become a client state and a satellite of the United States.
"But did he have a choice?" I ask.
"Of course he should have said to Mr. Bush that we are neither with you nor against you. We are on the side of our own country. He should have exercised some independence."
Why, he was asked, did he think his decision was not in the best interest of Pakistan?
"No country in the world would abruptly change its foreign policy at the whim of another country. Pakistani people are not happy with his decision, and it is apparent that he has lost touch with reality."
"But were not the Taliban responsible for protecting al-Qaeda and was not al-Qaeda responsible for attacks on 9/11?"
"Al-Qaeda was totally incapable of carrying out the attack on America," he said.
Reminded that all the perpetrators were Muslim Arabs, he shot back, "they were used by others."
He was particularly angry about President Musharraf's acceptance of American demands to change school curriculum.
"Why should we modify our religion to please America?" he fumed. "I think we understand our religion better than the so-called experts in Washington. I wonder how the Christian fundamentalists would react if the U.S. government would order deletion of certain passages from the Bible.
"Yes, we have people who commit atrocities in the name of religion, and we strongly condemn them. [But] to change the whole edifice for the despicable actions of a few would be like changing Christianity because the actions of a few preachers who advocate violence against minorities."
Moulvi Haji Gul is an imam in a small mosque tucked in an alley by the clock tower in the inner city of Peshawar. A soft-spoken man in his 50s, he preaches to a congregation of 200 every Friday. His sermons are low keyed, logical and for the most part inspiring. So I was surprised when after one recent Friday he fervently prayed, to loud amens, for the destruction of the enemies of Islam.
Who did he have in mind when he prayed for the destruction of the enemies of Islam?
He looked at me as if he doubted my intelligence.
"Of course, America and Israel," he replied.
"Under George Bush, America has declared war against Islam and Muslims. Somehow [Israel has] enormous influence in America. If Americans were fair people they would see the misery their policies have brought to Muslims. "
Then he went on to narrate a long list of grievances against America: Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Such sentiments are not limited to the religious. They are commonplace in Pakistan today, which is a growing problem for America.