Around Pakistan's Independence Day, last August 14, billboards sprang up on roundabouts in the city of Karachi offering three different Kentucky Fried Chicken meals. Against the green and white flag of Pakistan, they bore the words "A free nation free to choose." That morning in the Abdul Baqi madrasa, or religious seminary, 350 students were gathered for a special Independence Day assembly. Fifteen-year-old Rafi Udin spoke to the rows of boys, all wearing blue uniforms with white caps. The youngest sat in the front, the oldest in the back. A fiery orator, Rafi explained that before India had been divided and Pakistan created, Hindus had stolen control of India from Muslims and deprived them of their rights. They had treated Muslims as the enemy. "In fact," he said, "at the end of the 19th century it was very common thinking that Muslims are neither human nor a nation." Rafi ended with a triumphant cry of "Pakistan Zindabad!"Long live Pakistan!
What to do with madrasas like Abdul Baqi was among the most controversial issues facing Pakistan when I visited last summer. They had been accused of churning out terrorists and providing a medieval education. The Taliban had been formed in Pakistani madrasas, and the word "Taliban" means students. Madrasas had been accused of sending their students to fight jihad. In the wake of 9/11, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had warned that he would bring the madrasas under control and end the preaching of hate. Following the July 7 London bombings, his security forces had arrested hundreds of militants, provoking a wave of protests that turned into riots.
The Abdul Baqi madrasa countered accusations of extremism by supplementing the rigorous Islamic education that its students received with a secular curriculum including English, math, science, history, and computers. Its director was Maulana (teacher) Tufail Ahamd, grandson of the school's founder and himself a graduate. I asked him what jihad was. "When the enemies come to your country, then the government has to announce a jihad," he said, "an emergency to fight the enemy. You have to defend yourself." So there was no individual responsibility to fight jihad? I asked. "The government has the resources and security forces," he said. "Their duty is to fight the enemy and secure the country." I asked what he thought of madrasas that urged children to engage in jihad. "It is wrong for a madrasa to encourage jihad," he said. He lauded Musharraf's efforts to crack down on fundamentalists.
As I spoke with Maulana Tufail, he received a note from an officer of the Pakistani police's special branch asking him to forbid us from taking photographs of the buildings. The undercover police had been following our car since we arrived. The maulana invited the officer in for tea to see that our conversation was harmless. The officer later asked us for a ride back to his car.