Pakistan’s Grant for Controversial Islamic Seminary Under Review

Weeks of scathing criticism has apparently prompted a provincial government in Pakistan to review a grant of $3 million it has recently allocated for a controversial Islamic seminary, which some critics refer to as the “University of Jihad.”

The Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary, or madrasa, headed by Samiul Haq, a former senator, is located in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, which borders Afghanistan.

Haq’s madrasa, where about 4,000 students are enrolled, has been widely known for links, and publicly expressed sympathies, to the Taliban fighting local and U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan. That association has won the Islamic cleric the title of “Father of the Taliban.”

The political party ruling the Pakistani province is headed by legendary cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and a staunch critics of the U.S.-led anti-terrorism war in the region. He is also a strong opponent of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and is popular among educated Pakistani youth.

While provincial ministers have been defending the financial grant allocated for the seminary as part of efforts to “mainstream” thousands of madrasas around the province, Khan has tried to distance himself from the decision, although he reiterated his support for introducing reforms in religious institutions.

Khan learns of funding

Speaking to VOA at his Bani Gala residence near Islamabad, Khan said he was unaware of the funding for Haqqania madrasa until the media drew his attention to it.

He said the provincial chief minister used his discretionary powers to allocate the funds without his knowledge and even without informing some of his Cabinet ministers. But Khan says he has now instructed the provincial authority to submit a report to him to justify the allocation. Under Pakistan’s constitution, a party chief is empowered to do so and can dismiss a public office holder if he or she goes against party policy.

“The situation is evolving right now. What we want the KP Government, because as I said I too only learnt about this specific madrasa on a TV program when I was asked this question. So, what we want the KP government to do now is to announce exactly how this money will be spent, how is it going to mainstream this madrasa, which is one of the main madrasas in KP, and we have been assured by the government that in the next few days they will give us the details about how specifically this money will be spent,” Khan said.

Both Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani – founders of Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban and the lethal Haqqani network respectively – are believed to have studied in the Haqqania madrasa. It is reported that Taliban leader Mullah Akthar Mansoor, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May, was also a former student.

Madrasa’s history

The Haqqania madrasa was one of the seminaries Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies used for recruiting fighters for the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Graduates from the seminary have also joined in large numbers Taliban ranks fighting the U.S.-led international forces and their local allies in Afghanistan.

Many politicians are questioning why so much money is being given to the seminary while more moderate institutions are not receiving similar funding.

Khan stopped short of agreeing when asked whether he might instruct the provincial government to cancel the funding for the seminary in the face of growing demands from political opponents, media commentators and civil society activists.

“Well, it depends where the money is being spent, if this money is going to mainstream the students who at the moment are basically marginalized. I mean, again, the party policy is to mainstream the students from these madrasas. As I said, exactly how it is going to be done we are waiting the report from the chief minister,” Khan said.

But he said there are about 2.2 million students in madrasas across the province and they all come from families unable to pay fees in private or government schools, so there is a need to teach them modern subjects to enable them to get jobs.

“So, our main concern is that we should be bringing these people into mainstream, and so that they become part of the society. Marginalization everywhere in the world, now we know, leads to radicalization. The ISIS (or Islamic State) has mainly got recruits from Muslim communities living in Europe who are marginalized,” Khan asserted.

Political involvement

Political analyst and author Zahid Hussain sees the funding for the seminary as politically motivated, but warns such attempts could undermine Pakistan’s successes against religious extremism and terrorism.

“Such a move could reverse the gains that have been made so far in fighting militancy and extremism. It is simply a political bribe and nothing to do with any professed effort to de-radicalize religious seminaries and bring them into the mainstream. In fact, favoring one group of a particular sect could encourage bigotry and fuel religious disharmony,” Hussain wrote in the daily Dawn.

Religious parties have traditionally struggled in national elections in Pakistan, hardly winning more than a few seats in parliament.

But in conservative regions like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, religious conservatives still influence regional politics, preventing Khan’s party to win an outright majority in the provincial assembly, and he relies on support from an Islamic fundamentalist party to run the coalition government there.

Source: Voice of America