At the Birthplace of the Taliban

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"He's come to see where we make the bombs," Maulana (teacher) Adil Siddiqui, said to a teenager who asked who I was. Siddiqui was a broadcaster with All-India Radio, the state radio, until he retired to this seminary to escape the world. This seminary is Dar-ul-uloom, or the place of knowledge, home to 3,500 boys and young men, mostly from poor families, in the Indian farming town of Deoband. It is also the spiritual home of the particular brand of Islam practiced by the Taliban.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Dar-ul-uloom gave birth in the 19th century to the Doebandi movement, a regenerative brand of Islam which rapidly spread across British India and central Asia. It was picked up 20 years ago as a God-given practice, the true path, by some village Afghans along Pakistan's border. As the Taliban they imposed their version, which draws heavily from their own austere tribal traditions, on a nation exhausted after years of civil war. While the intellectual underpinnings are similar, Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban, Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, a definitive history of the Taliban writes, "the Taliban were to take these beliefs to an extreme which the original Deobandis would never have recognised."

In Dar-ul-uloom there are no bombs, no dynamite, nothing explosive on the eight-acre compound — not even in the written or spoken word. There was just the routine and the defensive humor and goodwill of hard-working, devout people who believe in the Word of God; people who study His revelations and try to interpret correctly the utterances of His prophet Mohammed.

The classrooms are crowded but quiet, far removed from the noise of the harvest outside. In one room under a dome, 800 young men, their beards thickening as they move in their final year into mature manhood, sit cross-legged rocking on their haunches as a professor takes them through an interpretation of a religious text. All students and teachers sit on straw mats on the floor. Classes begin as the sun rises after prayers before dawn, and end again with prayers after dusk. Infractions are punished by banishment from meals. Serious disciplinary lapses lead to expulsion. Television is banned. Women visitors are infrequent and must be veiled.

Dar-ul-uloom is a product of the Indian mutiny of 1857, a watershed for India's Muslims. After Britain's victory ended the Muslim dominance of the subcontinent, the school became the center of a forward-looking movement that sought to reform and unite Muslim society in a country now ruled by non-Muslim foreigners. The key was education. They were suspicious of Western learning and British attempts to educate Indians to think like Englishmen. The Deobandis, as they are called, sought to create a new generation of learned Muslims, self-confident and able to use the revealed texts and Islamic law as a roadmap for modern life. They opposed hierarchies in every form and opened their doors to the poor, offering free education to all students.

The movement spread across India to Afghanistan and into Central Asia where Russia was taking over the Muslim Khanates. Deobandi scholars were involved in the anti-colonial struggle for India's independence. After India and Pakistan achieved their independence in 1947, the Deobandis switched their political focus to the "secular" governments that took Britain's place. They sought to ensure Muslim rights were protected.

It is the political reputation of graduates from Deobandi schools that has led some governments in the region to keep the Deobandi movement at arm's length. India refuses to grant visas to students from abroad to study at Dar-ul-uloom, fearful that another leader like the Taliban's Mullah Omar might emerge in one of its neighbors. But the government has no problems opening immigration doors to foreign students who wish to study at the country's other great center of Islamic scholarship and revival — Aligarh Muslim University.

The Deobandis do not like to be called fundamentalists. They say that is a term that can apply to every religion. And they don't like the term "Islamic terrorist" either. "Islam means peace," says Maulana Said Palanpuri, the school's Arabic professor. "There are people who distort God's teaching and we condemn them. But why do people in the West use the term Islamic terrorist and not Christian terrorist or Jewish terrorist when Christian and Jews commit atrocities?"

Cut off from television because of its "corrupting" influence but getting their information from radio broadcasts and India's newspapers, the students find it hard to believe that Osama bin Laden was behind the suicide attacks in New York and Washington. Islamic solidarity is the first truth. "Osama bin Laden is not a terrorist. His mission is to highlight the problem the U.S. has done to the Arabs," one student on his way to classes said. And then he adds, almost as an afterthought: "The attack was a terrible shock and the perpetrators must be punished."

Within the Vice-chancellor's office, Maulana Marghoob says "they were acts of individuals and were not something guided by religion. We condemn the attacks." He said that suspects within the Muslim community who carried out acts that did not correspond with Muslim teaching should be tried by their co-religionists and not by others. Later he said that if evidence were provided by the U.S. pointing to Osama bin Laden's guilt he should be handed over to an "international tribunal" for trial. Asked to explain the Taliban's actions in Afghanistan, the vice-chancellor said: "I am not going to justify them. Nor am I going to criticize them. Over time distortions have crept in [to Islam]. That is the case with all religions."

But this leading Deobandi scholar, like most Muslims from every walk of life in South Asia, said the United States needed to "look within itself" to find out the causes of the attacks. His contention: That Washington has failed to even acknowledge that its policies in the Middle East, Iraq, and Yugoslavia could be offensive to Muslims and less powerful countries. Initial sympathy and support for the U.S., he says is waning. And this comes from individuals who say that Islamic militancy is unacceptable because their religion is based on peace. "Violence has no religion," says Professor Saud Alam Qasmi, Head of Religious Studies at Aligarh Muslim University. "If you kill one person you kill all humanity."