Madrassas and jihadism

Pakistan has been a sovereign republic since it obtained its independence from British rule in 1947. The country is strategically located in South Asia, on the border with China, India, Iran and Afghanistan. It continues to fight a historic war with India. And being so close to Afghanistan has placed it in the sights of the “war against terrorism” waged by the USA.

It is a large and diverse country, home to different ethnic groups. The vast majority of its 170 million inhabitants are Muslims. Its society is, generally speaking, conservative, closely attached to its traditional customs and ways of life, and feels rejection for western colonialism and acculturation.

As far as education is concerned, with no reliable records in the matter, it is thought that Pakistan has between 12,000 and 40,000 madrassas or Quranic schools where boys and girls from humble backgrounds have access to education.

These madrassas are not State-owned, but belong to different religious groups; they are also more numerous than state schools in certain regions. They generally offer accommodation, food and education, free of charge, meaning that they represent the only real chance of education for many families. These schools are occasionally funded by foreign powers such as Saudi Arabia or the UK, which see them as an opportunity to exercise influence on young Pakistani people.

In addition to the Quran, at the madrassas the pupils study philosophy, literature, mathematics... and a great many fulfil an educational function with no ties whatsoever to Islamic radicalism or fundamentalism. However, as can be seen in the film, there have been cases of Quranic schools where Jihadism is encouraged, understood as the use of violence and terrorism in the name of Allah and of political Islam. Ever since attacks of 11th September 2001 Pakistan has been on the receiving end of strong international pressure to register and obtain greater control of these madrassas.

Perhaps the case of the Red Mosque and its network of madrassas is one of the best known in the West. It was built by the Pakistani Government in 1961 as the central mosque of Islamabad, capital of the country, and was frequented by the economic and political elite.

Years later, in 1979, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; it was then that Saudi Arabia and the United States allied with Pakistan against the Soviet invasion of the neighbouring Afghanistan. At that time Maulana Abdulla was the highest ranking cleric of the Red Mosque and would implore his pupils to join the anti-Soviet Jihad movement.

Today the Red Mosque has a network of madrassas with around 10,000 boy and girl students, and the grand cleric is Maulana Abdul Aziz, son of Maulana Abdullah. The investment made by Saudi Arabia and the United States to contain the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan has turned against them over the years. And just as Maulana Abdullah proclaimed the fight against the Russians, his son Abdul Aziz, who has voiced his explicit backing of ISIS and the Taliban Regime, is doing the same against the United States and the West.

Pakistani society rejects violence and radicalism, and the vast majority considers Islam to be a religion that defends values of solidarity, peace, justice and equality. But Pakistan is also the place where Osama Bin Laden took refuge and where the United States captured him; it is also, although it may seem paradoxical, one of the countries to have suffered the greatest brunt of Islamic terrorism in recent years.

Its geographical and ideological situation – between the Taliban influence coming from Afghanistan and the rejection of western colonialism – places Pakistan in a delicate situation. And, as in so many other conflicts, it is the civilian population, and in this case particularly boys and girls, who are the target of manipulation by factions on both sides.

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