Mohammad Abdullah, a shy, skinny American in his early 20s with a wispy black beard and knitted white skullcap, is just a month from finishing an eight-year course in religious studies at a Karachi Islamic school, or madrasah. He plans another year of study before returning home to New York to teach Islam at a university or mosque, and the Pakistani American knows that he'll probably be taken for a terror threat. In fact, most of the 60 Americans studying at Karachi's Jamia Binoria (which historically has a higher enrollment of foreign students than other madrasahs in the city) declined to be interviewed, citing fears of being pegged by Homeland Security upon their return to the States. But Abdullah quietly insists he and his schoolmates shouldn't be stigmatized. "Not every university is considered the same. Just because of a few people you can't just say everyone is the same. Just because some students are radical doesn't mean we are."
In theory, however, the overseas students shouldn't really even be in Pakistan. In 2005, then President Pervez Musharraf ordered all foreigners studying at madrasahs, including dual citizens, to leave the country, and banned new students from arriving after claims that several of the London suicide bombers had spent short stints in the Islamic schools. However, the enrollment of foreign students was "insufficiently regulated," enabling many to remain, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in its most recent report on the schools. The civilian government that succeeded Musharraf in 2008 apparently tried to maintain the restrictions by drowning applicants in paperwork. Students must obtain valid visas and security clearances as well as a no-objection certificate (NOC) from their home countries, the Crisis Group says.
NOCs do seem to be harder to get. A spate of homegrown U.S. terror threats like Faisal Shahzad's failed New York City bombing highlight what can happen when fanatical Westerners apparently team up with overseas militants or teachers who can help them carry out terrorist attacks. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric now hiding in Yemen, is accused of recruiting and radicalizing American Muslims, including the Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, and is said to have had contact with Shahzad. Homegrown plotters have become bigger threats. But none of them were actually madrasah-trained. Even high-profile terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are not madrasah alumni.
Some Pakistani madrasahs have been accused of indoctrinating and funneling jihadi fighters across the border to Afghanistan, just as they did during the 1980s with U.S. help and blessings to repel the invading Soviet Union. It's a charge loudly protested by many institutions. "This is total propaganda," says Mufti Mohammad Naeem, who heads Jamia Binoria. "If any madrasah teaches extremism it's the responsibility of the government to shut that madrasah." That was the case with Islamabad's Red Mosque. In 2007, the mosque and its adjoining madrasah, the Jamia Hafsa, were besieged by the Pakistani military after their radical students and clerics called for an overthrow of the government. More than 150 people were killed in the standoff, which made madrasah a byword for terrorist incubator in the minds of many.
But Mufti Naeem says it's unfair to tar the majority of schools. "Western countries think that people who are coming to study in madrasahs are here to learn about terrorism and weapons, but you can see what the students are doing. They're just studying their books."
Still, the issue for some is what's in those books. Madrasahs are Islamic seminaries that provide a modicum of education for Pakistan's poorest children free of charge, as well as free accommodation and meals. The syllabus doesn't extend far beyond religious studies, including memorizing the Koran in Arabic, although some madrasahs like Jamia Binoria also offer subjects like Web programming, English and mathematics. Still, the overwhelming focus is on Islam.
Critics claim that intolerance of non-Muslims is part of the madrasah syllabus, making the institutions "factories of hate" as columnist Shafqat Mahmood wrote in the relatively liberal daily the News last week. "They don't have to give terrorist training," he wrote. "They create the enabling environment for terrorism to sprout."
Jamia Binoria is considered a moderate Deobandi institution, often mistaken for the more radical Binori Town madrasah also in Karachi. Students who engage in political activities are expelled, the mufti says. The madrasah, a sprawling 12-acre site deep in an industrial zone along Karachi's backstreets, has a strictly segregated section for female students. The male students, unlike some ultra-strict Muslims, aren't perturbed by the presence of a female reporter. On a recent Friday, thousands of local men joined the students for afternoon prayers in the compound's mosque. Worshippers spilled out into a vast open-air courtyard. Young primary-age boys in white caps prayed in their sparsely furnished classrooms, in front of low, well-worn sloping wooden desks adorned with several Korans. There appeared to be few other books apart from religious tomes, save for some exercise books. Mufti Naeem is keen for visitors to look around, to prove that his madrasah isn't a jihadi training center. "Did you see any weapons?" he asks. Nothing is off-limits.
In 2002, the Musharraf government formulated a $100 million "madrasah reform agenda" that included mandatory registration of the institutions and modernization of their curriculums by including courses like English, social science and math. Madrasahs that complied were financially rewarded. Few chose to take the government subsidies even those that already teach nonreligious subjects or had changed their curriculum. There are some 20,000 madrasahs in the country, according to the government. Mufti Naeem says that up to 8,000 are in the bustling, religiously conservative port city of Karachi alone.
They remain self-funded, largely through local donations and, some critics claim, international friends like Saudi Arabia and individual Gulf sheiks. Jamia Binoria, for example, runs a restaurant on-site and also has several other commercial interests in Karachi to help pay its bills. "We don't want [government] money because we don't want them to interfere in our affairs," Mufti Naeem says. He and other madrasah leaders fear that modernization means Westernization, something they reject. But that does not mean that they don't want Westerners. On the contrary, the mufti wants students who can eventually return to their home countries and teach others "the same values" that they have learned in Pakistan.
More than 500 of Jamia Binoria's 5,000 students are foreigners from 29 countries including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Indonesia and even Fiji, as well as other states in the Middle East and European Union. Mufti Naeem says that if visas were easier to get "two- to three-thousand foreign students will come," based on the level of interest he's received from abroad.
U.S. officials acknowledge that anyone who has visited Pakistan or a madrasah will be subjected to additional scrutiny upon entering the U.S., but they decline to go into specifics, citing security concerns. "Upon arrival at a U.S. port of entry, applicants undergo an inspection that includes a case-by-case assessment of a variety of factors, including screening against law-enforcement databases," says Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees both U.S. customs and immigration agencies. Such checks, he says, "identify travelers that may pose a greater risk of terrorist or criminal activity and therefore should be subject to further scrutiny or examination."
Most of the 60 Americans currently enrolled at Jamia Binoria are Pakistani Americans, like Abdullah. The 22-year-old went to Jamia Binoria, he says, to memorize the Koran. He wants to teach it in New York, to change American perceptions of Islam. "Everybody thinks we're terrorists but we're going to give them our point of view that we're actually not," he says. "They think that Islam is a radical religion and there's nothing in it, it's just radicalism and terrorism and killing people. But actually Islam is not about that. That's our point to explain that when we come back." He knows going home won't be easy. Former American madrasah students who have returned to the U.S. "usually get hassled by customs," Abdullah says, "but I have nothing to hide."
With reporting by Mark Thompson / Washington