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Going Home/Madrasas

Program 0209 February 26, 2002

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(This text has been professionally transcribed, however, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

BEBARIAM: [via a translator] They don’t have a shelter. Well, when it rains it’s very difficult.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, coping with the post-September 11 reality. Plus, Pakistan’s fundamentalist schools.

ABDUL RASHID-GHAZI: Jihad is one of the fundamental obligations of a Muslim. Everybody must get, go to jihad and take trainings for jihad and go and get involved in jihad.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I'm Kristin McHugh. The US-led war in Afghanistan forced hundreds of thousands of Afghans to flee their homes. But the fall of the Taliban encouraged others to return. Meanwhile, in the US, some people of South Asian origin face racist attacks and racial profiling. They now question whether to return to their homelands.

PORTER: Common Ground’s Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich met an Afghan refugee, an Afghan-American relief worker, and a Pakistani taxi driver from Seattle. He asked them all the same question: Where’s home?

[sound of someone speaking in the middle of a crowded, busy setting]

REESE EHRLICH: At the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, this refugee named Bebariam describes how she and her family of 11 escaped Afghanistan prior to September 11.

BEBARIAM: [via a translator] They came by foot.

EHRLICH: And so how long did it take total?

BEBARIAM: [via a translator] One month.

EHRLICH: It took one month from Afghanistan to get, to reach here.

BEBARIAM: [via a translator] Yeah.


BEBARIAM: [via a translator] And they say, we don’t have money to pay for buses or for vehicles and something.

EHRLICH: Bebariam and her entire family live in a 15-square foot canvas tent with nothing but plastic sheeting and woven mats on the floor.

BEBARIAM: [via a translator] They had a better life in Afghanistan and she is now in a very difficult situation now. They don’t have a shelter. Well, when it rains it’s very difficult.

EHRLICH: For these refugees there’s no question that Afghanistan is their home. Bebariam’s husband Akbar says, however, that despite the difficult conditions here they won’t return to Afghanistan until the political and economic situation becomes better. They won’t return while the US is still bombing their country and so far the new US-backed government of Hamid Karzai hasn’t won the confidence of many folks at this camp.

AKBAR: [via a translator] He said “when the government is stable and there is peace there and it’s the people’s government we’ll go.” He said, “We don’t know anything.” I mean, he said “It’s government’s job to do it. We can’t say whether it can be tomorrow or after six months or one year.”

EHRLICH: What do other people—do other people have plans to go back?

AKBAR: [via a translator] “Whenever there is peace we’ll all go.”

UNIDENTIFIED AFGHAN REFUGEE: [via a translator] He says, “Whenever it’s peace, what are we doing here? There’s no peace there.” I mean, “We can’t go there. What will we do there?”

[more Afghan refugees speaking in the background]

EHRLICH: At a refugee camp near Haripur, Pakistan another Afghan has a different story of going home. Twenty three-year-old Afghan-American Halmira Hanif works as an intern with Save the Children, an international relief agency. She faces the same question as many immigrant children: Is home America or Afghanistan? Homaira was born in Kabul and came to the US with her parents when she was only two. She says her parents fled in 1980, not long after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

HALMIRA HANIF: They realized the situation was becoming unstable and they had two small children. And they thought it was necessary to leave. So, and in that time people were being kidnapped. No one knew what would happen to them. So as far as that, and they felt it was time to leave. So they left right in the beginning when it wasn’t that difficult to leave.

EHRLICH: Homaira grew up in California and northern Virginia. She say she never went through the teen rebellion of rejecting her parents’ language and culture. In fact, quite the opposite. She wanted to learn all of Afghanistan’s languages.

HANIF: My mom insisted on speaking Farsi or Dari in the house. And I always, you know, I’m angry at them for not teaching me how to speak Pashto. Even when I, when I started e-mailing them in English it felt very strange. ‘Cause it’s always been Dari in the household.

EHRLICH: Homaira says from a very early age she wanted to find some way to help the people of Afghanistan.

HANIF: I was originally pre-med and I wanted to become a doctor, ‘cause that seems the obvious choice. But I always felt that if I were a doctor and I went to some place like Afghanistan where, you know, a quarter of the children die before age five and you have a very high maternal mortality rate, you know, one doctor can’t do much. But public health, when I read more about that and I decided to go into public health, I liked it because of the preventive aspect and reaching a wide population. So, I thought that if I, you know, learned those skills I could help my country better in that way.

EHRLICH: Homaira now has a master’s degree in public health and has worked with Afghan refugees in Pakistan for four months. She doesn’t introduce herself as an Afghan-American, and the refugees, she says, accept her just as another Afghan living in Pakistan. She’s learned a lot from them.

HANIF: Coming here and seeing Afghans help themselves and work with each other, I think it’s important to realize that there are people here capable of doing the work. And they just need some outside help as far as technical or other sorts of assistance. But they don’t need anyone to come in and rescue them and take over programs. And I don’t think that people necessarily in the US realize this, even in the Afghan community—that people have established their own schools, that people are working. And people are doctors still and they have received education. And with a little training, you know, they can go a long way.

EHRLICH: She also sees the importance of working with Afghan women. She and other relief workers encourage them to participate in the refugee camp programs in hopes they can develop useful skills for when they return to Afghanistan.

HANIF: In the camps we have, like female health workers and volunteers in the camps who mobilize the communities. So we already have women in the camps who are working, contributing in our programs. We have women organizing in formal, you know, schools in the house, and we have women, you know, in the office working. They’re all Afghan refugees, you know, whether they’re living in the camps or they’re refugees living outside of the camps. So, I know the women, they feel that they’ve been a part of the process. They’ve gained some skills working here in the camps. And I’m sure that they can use those same skills going back. I think women need to be involved and women have been involved, whether it’s formal or informal. And there’s no way you can have a country succeed without half of its population contributing.

EHRLICH: Despite residing most of her life in the US, Homaira considers Afghanistan her home. She concedes it won’t be easy to give up the creature comforts of northern Virginia for the chaos of Kabul. But she insists that’s exactly what she plans to do.

HANIF: That’s where commitment comes into it. You know, how committed are you? How, you know, how much is this a part of your life? And you know, if it’s not, if that’s not what you want to do then you shouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t do something halfway, you know. It’s either all or nothing for me.

EHRLICH: Zamir Kayyani is also committed, but in a very different way. Zamir was born in Pakistan but has lived in the US for ten years. Although he lives in Seattle, he too became a victim of September 11. Early in the morning of September 30 he was driving cab when two passengers viciously assaulted him.

ZAMIR KAYYANI: I was taking them to their hotel when without any warning or any kind of indication they, they just, they jump over me and start hitting me. And they were saying something about Osama bin Laden and that “all you are terrorists” and “we’re gonna take you back. We don’t know where you’re from but we’re gonna find it out.” I was kind of shocked, you know. I mean, it is something I never anticipated.

EHRLICH: So they didn’t know you were Pakistani?

KAYYANI: No. They just looked at my color, you know. Color of my hands or face or somewhere.

EHRLICH: The beating caused internal injuries and Zamir still suffers back and neck pain. He’s now back in Pakistan for a few months to recuperate and see his family. His parents’ farm 45 miles outside of Islamabad is a far cry from Seattle. Zamir shows how they use a hand crank to get water from a well.

[metallic clanking sounds as water is drawn from a well]

KAYYANI: It’s coming up. Slowly, slowly. As I am rolling it. On this.

EHRLICH: His mother Mechabegum is preparing lunch.

[Mechabegum speaks]

EHRLICH: Mechabegum says the attack on Zamir shattered her image of America in general and Seattle in particular.

MECHABEGUM: [via a translator] Her son used to call her up and tell her that this is a very peaceful country and a peaceful town and city as well. We don’t have any problems whatsoever. But since, ever since after the attacks, I mean, she say, “Look at what, what has happened.” I mean, her son had to come back because he had, he got beaten up over there. And the peace has totally collapsed.

EHRLICH: Mechabegum would like Zamir to stay here in Pakistan.

MECHABEGUM: [via a translator] She’s saying that whatever happened to her son was a great, I mean a pretty big disaster. Should not have happened at all. And his, he lost a lot of self-respect in that process as well. Of course she is going to have a lot of reservations about him going back now. And she is always going to be thinking about his well being.

EHRLICH: Zamir feels the pull of being both Pakistani and American. He and his entire family strongly condemn Osama bin Laden and the September 11 attacks. They say such terrorism is unIslamic. At the same time, Zamir’s family, like almost everyone I talked to in Pakistan, think the US must stop opposing the Palestinians and stop building military bases all over the world. Mehmood, Zamir’s brother, says such US policies actually build political support for terrorists in the Muslim world.

MEHMOOD: If the United States is playing its role, I mean, probably, you know, in these terrorist groups, they will automatically washed out from the society. Yeah, they are using these issues for their own purposes. But, and if and all these issues settled on, of course there will be no need for these groups.

[the sound chickens cackling and crowing]

EHRLICH: Zamir walks outside to a field full of poultry, sheep, and a water buffalo.

KAYYANI: We feed those goats and lambs and a cow and buffalo. So they eat it. We just feed them every morning.

EHRLICH: He misses his childhood here in rural Pakistan where life is simpler and he doesn’t face racist attacks. But Zamir still loves America and he doesn’t blame the American people for his beating.

KAYYANI: There are some people, some negative mind people everywhere. So, those are just a few of them. So, I mean, I don’t all blame America for this thing I’m in. The other people in America, they are very supportive. And I really appreciate their, their, the direction what they took when somebody attacked our mosque in Northgate. And I saw some of us fellow Americans sitting outside, you know, guarding that mosque. And on Friday, on our holy day, they brought the ice cream and cookies and all the stuff over there just to help the worshippers.

EHRLICH: Zamir is impressed by that spirit of helping people and a willingness to fight intolerance. Despite the racist attack, he plans to return to Seattle.

KAYYANI: I think I kinda consider it my home, the United States. This is the place where I was born and that’s the place where I live right now.

EHRLICH: So for you, going home is back to Seattle?

KAYYANI: Back to Seattle. That’s very right.

[Zamir’s mother is speaking in the background]

EHRLICH: Zamir’s mother understands that her son will in all likelihood return to the US. She offers her blessing and adds one for the people of America as well.

MECHABEGUM: [via a translator] She says everybody should, must remain peace. And that is, I mean, it comes from her heart. Even after what happened to her son she’s still offering her blessings to all the Americans. Not just the Muslims—everybody.

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich in Pakistan.

MCHUGH: Pakistan’s fundamentalist schools, next on Common Ground.

SAYEED ASMAT GILANI: [via a translator] The major influx of these extreme thoughts came during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, where children, they were taught to, to go to jihad. And that theology flourished during the wartime.

MCHUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: Earlier this year Pakistan’s military ruler, President Prevez Musharraf, ordered a major crackdown on the country’s madrasas, or religious schools, that many claim organize support for terrorism.

MCHUGH: But these fundamentalist schools have deep roots in Pakistan. And as Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, the influence of the madrasas won’t be easy to uproot.

[sound of many children talking and shouting at once]

EHRLICH: Here in a madrasa students chant the Koran from memory

[sound of many children talking and shouting at once]

EHRLICH: Critics charge that many madrasas offer little modern education and inculcate their students with a right-wing, strict interpretation of Islam that supports the Taliban and similar causes. Abdul Rashid-Ghazi, Vice President of a madrasa at Islamabad’s Red Mosque, admits that his school promotes jihad.

ABDUL RASHID-GHAZI: Some people think that Islam is meant only, it’s just a, I mean that you practice, go for prayer, you fast in the holy month of Ramadan; it is not that. It is a complete code of life that you have to accept each and every thing from Islam. Jihad is one of the big basics of Islam. You cannot do this thing that you accept few things and reject few things. You have to accept all these Islamic principles.

EHRLICH: Dr. Abdul Nayyar, a Fellow with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, says most Pakistani Muslims define jihad not as holy war but as “struggle,” which can include peaceful efforts to eradicate poverty and other social problems. But the right-wing madrasas promote jihad as a holy war against infidels, says Nayyar, and some offer military training.

DR. ABDUL NAYYAR: There is now a unanimity or the near unanimity among the different kind of madrasas that exist in Pakistan, that jihad is one of the fundamental obligations of a Muslim. And that everybody must get, go to jihad and take trainings for jihad and go and get involved in jihad. Even if some of the madrasas are not directly involved in military training of their students they are giving them the ideology of jihad.

EHRLICH: Academics estimate there are 6,000 to 10,000 madrasas in Pakistan, of which perhaps 20 percent teach militant Islam. The madrasa has existed for many years as a boarding school where impoverished students could get food, lodging, and the basic religious education. Indeed, Red Mosque leader Ghazi defends the madrasas precisely because of that charitable history.

GHAZI: There are some families who cannot afford their children so they send them to madrasas because in that they, they see that their children would be placed and they would have food, they would have clothing, and then they will grow up with the passage of time. And, of course, they will learn something. They will be useful for the, for the society. You know that every parent thinks—well, is concerned very much about his children. So they will not send just only because of the food, because of the—to some place where they think their, their children will be destroyed, or where they think their children would become, I mean, useless or negative people, or be harmed.

EHRLICH: But during the 1980s some madrasas became something entirely different. The US encouraged Saudi Arabia and Gulf states to fund the madrasas, according to Pakistani academics. That aid transformed some schools into recruiting stations for mujahadeen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. By the 1990s the madrasas were training the future leadership of the Taliban. Sayeed Asmat Gilani, is a moderate Muslim scholar who helps run religious schools throughout the country.

SAYEED ASMAT GILANI: [via a translator] The major influx of these extreme thoughts came during the Russian war, the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, where children, they were thought, taught to, to go to jihad. And that theology, it flourished during the wartime. Surely that, the influence of the Arab countries and their fundings in Pakistan have created, increased extremism in Pakistan. And in fact that, that is the base of the root cause of this spreading of extremism and violence.

EHRLICH: Throughout the 1990s right-wing madrasa and political group leaders murdered Muslim opponents and violently attacked secular Pakistanis. Farzana Bari, who heads the women’s studies program at Islamabad’s largest university, says they also waged vigilante campaigns against women.

FARZANA BARI: Anybody on the street can come to, used to come to you and say, “If you are not covered”—your head, they said, “Why aren’t you covering your head?” Go to any woman, any man can, could walk up to you and say, “OK, why aren’t you covering your head?” If a woman is wearing like sleeveless or if she’s not covered her head, there were lots of incidents. There were, they have been, you know, slashed with a knife. There, especially in Karachi, we have seen lot of incidents where girls who were wearing half-sleeves or sleeveless, you know, with the knife they will, they will just cut their skin.

EHRLICH: While rejected by a large majority of Pakistanis these militant Islamic groups enjoyed support from successive Pakistani governments since the 1970s. In return for those groups’ political support the governments ignored their illegal activities. The groups also developed some popular support by combining a populist appeal to the poor with opposition to US military expansion in the Muslim world. When the US started bombing Afghanistan the madrasas became a rallying point for protesting war and Pakistan’s alliance with the US.

[the Moslem call to prayer is heard over a loudspeaker]

EHRLICH: Many Pakistanis strongly oppose the US war in Afghanistan and some still support the Taliban, as can be heard during random interviews after Friday prayers at this Islamabad mosque in a working class neighborhood.

PAKISTANI SHOPKEEPER: [via a translator] Americans are the largest terrorist state in the world, and they are the enemies of Islam. And look at what they did in Iraq.

EHRLICH: This small shopkeeper continues that theme.

PAKISTANI SHOPKEEPER: [via a translator] Don’t, doesn’t America see terrorism within the Palestine and Kashmir? I mean, is Afghanistan the only country they can see terrorism? Israel is such a big terrorist, why doesn’t America take any actions against Israelis?

EHRLICH: This bus driver says the US unfairly criticized the Taliban.

PAKISTANI BUS DRIVER: [via a translator] Taliban, well, they, they were never given a chance to truly stabilize the government over there, so that women could also start working. They were planning on having women—different universities and different small businesses, where the women could work over there as well. So that issue that women were not allowed to work is incorrect. The Taliban were never given a chance. [translator speaks in the second person now] And the second point he made was that since Taliban were there, I mean even the, even the foreign powers, they were, there was peace six years. I mean there was no civil war, there was nothing. The main point is that, that, why they are trying to enforce their own culture on us? If we try to enforce our own culture on the European people, how will they feel about that?

EHRLICH: While opposition to the US war remains high, even very conservative Muslims now question their faith in the Taliban. Antiwar demonstrations have stopped. Mutaz Fazal is a devout Muslim businessman who supported the Taliban. But he was severely disappointed in the Taliban’s weak military response to the US.

MUTAZ FAZAL: Their crumbling created lots of dissatisfaction. People expected that there must be, would be some sort of better response as compared to their just running away. Since the expectations were not met everything subsided.

EHRLICH: People here thought that the Taliban would put up a tougher fight?

FAZAL: Yes! They, they thought it would be.

EHRLICH: Pakistani President Musharraf, under US pressure, is cracking down on the madrasas and right-wing mullahs. He has jailed thousands of militant activists. He’s proposing new rules to bring the madrasas under government control and reshape their curricula to be closer to that of the public schools. The hard right wing is not happy with these plans. Hamid Gul is a former chief of the main Pakistani intelligence service and currently is a leader in the Afghan Defense Council, a group that backs the Taliban. He makes a populist appeal to Pakistani’s hatred of past corrupt governments allied with the US.

HAMID GUL: The elitist class of the society had plundered the country with both hands. They dishonored the country, they plundered, they made it poor. They really made our heads hang in shame. They were so corrupt, the educated ones from Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Pennsylvania, and all the other universities. They, they were all corrupt. But now madrasas become the target. None of the madrasas plundered the country. What have they done?

EHRLICH: But the madras leaders themselves are split, in part because the government is offering funds to religious schools who support its reforms. Red Mosque leader Abdul Ghazi reflects the dual reaction of many madrasa leaders. He wants the government money, but doesn’t trust the Musharraf regime.

RASHID-GHAZI: They are not serious because whatever we have seen in the past that all such actions are taken on the pressure from the foreign governments. Whatever they are doing they are doing just to please America. But still, we do not reject it. If the government is serious then I don’t think that there is any harm.

EHRLICH: The leaders of the madrasas and fundamentalist groups are clearly on the defensive. The government has banned extremist parties, closed their offices, and undercut their source of financing. Musharraf has certainly won the support of intellectuals and the middle class. Rasul Bakhash Rais, a political scientist at Islamabad’s largest university, says Pakistanis support General Musharraf despite the fact that he came to power in a military coup two years ago.

Rasul Bakhash Rais: No leader in Pakistan has been in recent history as popular General Prevez Musharraf. And that is a really sad reflection on Pakistan’s political culture, that a man in uniform is more popular—popular and more credible than the elected politicians in the recent history of Pakistan. Why it is so? Because he comes off as a straightforward, sincere person. He has a sense of integrity. And people believe him, what he says.

[people talking in a marketplace]

EHRLICH: However, in random interviews here at Islamabad’s largest open-air market, poor and working class Pakistanis express more mixed opinions. They still strongly oppose the US war in Afghanistan and criticize Musharraf, but don’t necessarily support the militant right wing either.

UNIDENTIFIED PAKISTANI MAN: [via a translator] He says Musharraf should think about the poor people, not just the well-off people. I mean, even with all these, I mean, all these resources at our, at our hands, we still have problems trying to make ends meet. And the rich keep on getting richer and the poor keep on getting poorer.

EHRLICH: This student on the other hand praises Musharraf.

PAKISTANI STUDENT: [via a translator] He’s a brave and clever leader.

EHRLICH: This van driver says he respects Musharraf for dealing with a very difficult situation.

PAKISTANI VAN DRIVER: [via a translator] Musharraf knows that if he had gone against the Americans, then they would all have been against us as well. So we are not that big a power to go against Americans right now.

EHRLICH: So he supports Musharraf?

PAKISTANI VAN DRIVER: [via a translator] For the time being what he did was, was OK.

EHRLICH: For the moment Musharraf has the full backing of the military and enough popular support to crack down on the madrasas and extremist Islamic groups. Critics note that those groups have enjoyed years of support from the US, Middle Eastern governments, and successive Pakistani regimes. Until September 11 Musharraf had tolerated and even courted such groups. So uprooting their influence will be a long-term battle. But for the moment, says Women’s Studies Professor Farzana Bari, Pakistanis are breathing a sigh of relief.

FARZANA BARI: We were feeling very trapped in, you know. And feeling very—we were very scared that maybe the similar situation what was in Afghanistan can come to us as well. I think that threat seems to be gone. And I hope for, forever these groups have really become very weak. And I think if our government takes this opportunity to make sure that these people do not surface again, then we will be quite OK.

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich in Islamabad, Pakistan.

MCHUGH: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Please refer to Program Number 0209; that's Program 0209. To order by credit card you can call us at 563-264-1500. That's 563-264-1500.

PORTER: Transcripts are also available on our web site, Commongroundradio is all one word. Our e-mail address is For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’mKristin McHugh. Cliff Brockman is our Associate Producer. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by The Stanley Foundation.

© 2002 by The Stanley Foundation

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