Inside Islam's "Terror Schools": Madrasas Are Islamic Colleges Accused by the US of Incubating Terrorism and the Attacks of 9/11. from Pakistan, William Dalrymple Investigates the Threat

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Halfway along the dangerous road to Kohat--deep in the lawless tribal belt between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and where Osama Bin Laden is widely believed to be sheltering--we passed a small whitewashed shrine that had recently been erected by the side of the road: "That is where the army ambushed and killed two al-Qaeda men escaping from Afghanistan," said Javed Paracha. "Local people soon began to see the two martyrs in their dreams. Now we believe that they are saints. Already many cures and miracles have been reported. If any of our women want to ask anything special from God, they first come here."

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He added: "They say that each shahid [martyr] emitted a perfume like that of roses. For many days a beautiful scent was coming from the place of their martyrdom."

Javed Paracha is a huge, burly tribal leader with a granite outcrop of nose jutting from a great fan of grey beard. In many ways he is the embodiment of everything that US policy-makers most fear and dislike about this part of the Muslim world. For Paracha is a dedicated Islamist, as well as a wily lawyer who has successfully defended al-Qaeda suspects in the Peshawar High Court. In his fortress-like stronghouse in Kohat he sheltered wounded Taliban fighters--and their frost-bitten women and children--fleeing across the mountains from the American Daisy Cutters at Tora Bora, and he was twice imprisoned by General Musharraf in the notorious prison at Dera Ismail Khan. There he was kept in solitary confinement while being questioned--and he alleges tortured--by CIA interrogators. On his release, he found his prestige among his neighbours had been immensely enhanced by his ordeal. His proudest boast, however, is building the two enormous madrasas he founded and financed, the first of which he says produced many of the younger leaders of the Taliban.

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"They are the biggest madrasas in the [North-West] Frontier," he told me proudly after stopping to say a prayer at the al-Qaeda shrine. "The books are free. The food is free. The education is free. We give them free accommodation. In a poor and backward area like this, our madrasas are the only form of education. The government system is simply not here."

Paracha got back in the car--the vehicle sinking to the left as he lowered himself into the back beside his two armed bodyguards--and added: "There are 200,000 jobless degree holders in this country. Mark my words, a more extreme form of the Taliban is coming to Pakistan. The conditions are so bad. The people are so desperate. They are waiting for a solution that will rid them of this feudal-army elite. The people want radical change. We teach them in the madrasas that only Islam can provide the justice they seek."

For better or worse, the sort of madrasa-driven change in political attitudes that Javed Paracha is bringing about in Kohat is being reproduced across Pakistan. An Interior Ministry report revealed recently that there are now 27 times as many madrasas in the country as there were in 1947: from 245 at the time of independence the number has shot up to 6,870 in 2001. The religious tenor of Pakistan has been correspondingly radicalised: the tolerant Sufi-minded Barelvi form of Islam is now deeply out of fashion, overtaken by the sudden rise of the more hardline reformist Deobandi, Wahhabi and Salafi strains of the faith that are increasingly dominant over swaths of the country.

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The sharp acceleration in the number of these madrasas first began under General Zia, and was financed mainly by Saudi donors (though ironically the US also played a role in this as part of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad). Since the oil boom of the early 1970s a policy of exporting not just petroleum, but also hardline Wahhabism, became fundamental tenet of Saudi foreign policy, partly a result of a competition for influence with Shia Iran. …