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Thursday, 13 November 2014
The School That Says Osama Bin Laden Was A Hero
Osama Bin Laden
A hardline cleric in
Pakistan is teaching the ideas of Osama Bin Laden in religious schools
for about 5,000 children.
Even while the Pakistani government fights the
Taliban in the north-west of the country, it has no plans to close
schools educating what could be the next generation of pro-Taliban
"We share the same objectives as the Taliban but we don't
offer military training. We work on minds. The Taliban are more
hands-on," says Abdul Aziz Ghazi, imam of Islamabad's controversial Red
"We teach about the principles of jihad. It's up to students
if they want to get military training after they leave here. We don't
Ghazi runs eight seminaries - madrassas as they are known -
the first of which was founded after his father went on a journey to
meet Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.
"Osama Bin Laden is a hero for us all. He stood up to America and he won. He inspired the mission of the school," says Ghazi.
In one of the seminaries, the library is named in honour of Bin Laden, who was killed by US Navy Seals in Pakistan in 2011.
Ghazi, his mosque and his seminaries, have come a long way
since 2007, when the Pakistani army was sent to lay siege to the radical
mosque, and later stormed it. The events left 100 dead, including many
militants, and Ghazi's younger brother, mother and son.
Ghazi himself became known as the "Burka Mullah" after he was caught
trying to escape wearing a woman's face veil and robe as a disguise.
Now 3,000 girls and 2,000 boys are studying at his institutions.
The syllabus is a heavy mix of Koranic recitation, Arabic and
theology. Science, maths and arts are seen as "worldly" and barely
feature. Many of the schools core texts have been written by Ghazi and
printed within the seminaries' own printing room. The shortest courses
are 12 months long but students can also enrol in an eight-year
programme that delivers imam status upon graduation.
"The Taliban ran Afghanistan very well. They created a just
society that was the envy of the world," says 24-year-old Abdullah who
will graduate from the imam school next year.
He too cites Osama Bin Laden as his inspiration. His
interpretation of Islam recommends stoning, public executions and
limited access to education for women.
"We all have the same aim - to create a society in which
there is no corruption. We want justice for everyone. The only way to
achieve that is through Sharia law and an Islamic state," he says.
Abdullah is one of 18 imams who will graduate from the school
in 2015, in order to carry these ideas into communities across
The Red Mosque
The Red Mosque was founded by Abdul Aziz Ghazi's father,
Maulana Qari Abdullah. He supported the Taliban who were at the time
fighting a war against the Russians. Abdullah raised his voice against
religious minorities and pluralism.
Military dictator Gen Zia Ul-Haq was a regular member of the Red Mosque congregation.
Following the 2007 siege, documents were recovered from the Red
Mosque revealing a relationship between the mosque and leaders of
al-Qaeda, including Osama Bin Laden.
Today the Red Mosque seminary has more students than ever
before and is currently undergoing extensive building work to
accommodate about 1,000 more students from 2015.
The school provides free boarding, food and medical care to all its students.
As a result, the vast majority of students come from
lower-income families, mostly from Pakistan's north-western tribal belt.
Some parents rely on the seminary to provide full-time care for their
At the girls' campus, male staff teach girls from concealed
concrete booths via a tannoy system - they may sometimes teach the
students for five years without ever meeting or even seeing them.
Ghazi insists the school receives no big grants, only small donations.
"People contact me from across Pakistan to make a donation.
Recently someone donated a house. Other people donate a few thousand
rupees or a car. They donate because they support what we are trying to
In principle, the Pakistani state should provide a free
education for all children who are of school going age, but the UN
estimates that 5.1m children in Pakistan are currently not in any form
of formal education - which means ripe pickings for the 14,000 madrassas
in the country run by mosques and charities.
Abdus Samad, from the northern village of Gurzangi, has sent
his 12-year-old daughter to the Red Mosque seminary - despite the fact
that his brother was murdered by the Taliban, for refusing to join their
These days if you want to give your child an education you need to
earn around 5,000 rupees (£31, $49) per month. If you have more kids, it
will cost much more. How is a man like me going to afford that? I have
a manual job and no fixed income," says Samad, who moved to Islamabad
in fear of his life after his brother's death.
At the seminary, his daughter gets three meals a day, and medical treatment if necessary.
"People say the school has links with the Taliban but I think
that's all politics," he says. "No madrassa really has anything to do
with the Taliban. It's a place of learning. That's all."
Education Minister Baligh Ur Rehman makes a similar argument.
Madrassas provide an important alternative to state education, he says,
and "just because some children say they support Osama Bin Laden, that
is not evidence of extremist teachings".
There are no plans, he says, to intervene at Ghazi's madrassas.
The Taliban divides opinion in Pakistan. The country has been
becoming more conservative and the religious right is powerful. Many
people would regard a crackdown on madrassas as a crackdown on Islam.
At the same time many ordinary Pakistanis are being forced to
recognise - after incidents such as a failed attempt by militants to
take over Karachi airport in June - that the Taliban does pose a threat
Earlier this year the government launched an anti-Taliban
military operation in Waziristan - in the tribal areas close to the
Afghan border - but it has shied away from concerted attempts to prevent
the Taliban influencing Pakistani society.
The president who ordered the attack on the Red Mosque in 2007, Gen Pervez Musharraf, argues that this is a mistake.
"We spent a long time negotiating with the Ghazi brothers but
they were holding Islamabad and the government to ransom. We had to
take action," he says, in justification of his own actions, for which he
now faces criminal charges.
"It's the responsibility of the current government to
suppress terrorism and extremism. It has to be dealt with a strong arm.
It's a mind-set and we have to take measures to control influencing of