Musharraf told to get tougheron militancy in Islamic schools

PAKISTAN

THE government has paid no more than lip service to reform of the thousands of religious schools operating in Pakistan, according to a report by the non-governmental International Crisis Group.

It has failed to curb the potential of the schools to foster Islamic militancy or tackle the massive problem of what to do with an estimated 1.5 million graduates, many from the poorest families in Pakistan, who are only qualified to be clerics.

"Their constrained world view, lack of modern civic education and poverty make them a destabilising factor in Pakistani society," said the report.

The same factors also made Islamic militancy attractive to students. "They are susceptible to romantic notions of sectarian and international jihads with a promise of instant salvation," it said.

This week a dozen British teachers and a number of pupils were among survivors of an armed attack by Islamic extremists on an international school near Islamabad. Two hired security guards, three school workers and a bystander were killed in the attack.

In a country where the average annual income is less than pound;300 and educational opportunities few, religious schools are often the only route open to the poorest children. They provide free education as well as lodging, food and clothing.

Roughly a third of all Pakistani children study at madrassas, as the religious schools are called. The problem of integrating them into mainstream education is daunting.

Islamic clerics have threatened nationwide street protests if the military government forges ahead with plans to regulate the schools.

President Pervez Musharraf, who has aligned himself with the American-led war on terrorism, has promised not to touch religious education at these schools, but has said they must integrate modern subjects such as maths, geography and history into the curriculum.

But the study said his draft laws were no more than "gentle prodding". A requirement that schools "voluntarily" register with the government showed its "lack of commitment to reform". Without the threat of sanctions if they refused to comply, schools would ignore the new laws, it said.

Even a government study earlier this year, which was not been made public, said some of the larger madrassas were actively pursuing foreign students, and receive most of their funding from such countries as Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq and Kuwait, raising fears that donors could have terrorist links.

More than 17,500 foreign students are studying at Pakistani religious schools. Some come from the United States, Britain and China. The majority are from Afghanistan.

The report suggested that a regulatory body should be set up that would implement tough new laws requiring mandatory registration, modernisation of curricula and declaration of funding sources.

The report recommended that all madrassas affiliated with banned militant organisations be closed and their leaders prosecuted if they attempt to incite violence. It also said that funding for these schools should be published and audited.

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