Pakistani police rescued dozens of chained students from a religious seminary in Karachi who, it is thought, were being trained for jihad. Pakistani experts believe the incident is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Young children spend many hours a day memorizing the Koran
The religious students were found shackled in Madrassa Zakarya, an Islamic seminary, in the southern port city of Karachi. The discovery seems to reinforce the Western viewpoint that the religious institutions in Pakistan are systematically preparing children for terrorism.
Some students told the media they were being trained for jihad and for a possible recruitment by the Pakistani Taliban. According to the police, the rescued students, some as young as 12 and some in their 50s, were either mentally-ill or drug addicts sent to the seminary by their parents hoping for a remedy.
Although the police have now recorded their statements, many of the younger children, in particular, are so frightened that police are still trying to establish what really happened.
One of the freed children, who talked to our Deutsche Welle correspondent in Karachi, spoke of horrific beatings.
"We were being forced to wake up in the chilling cold and if we were not able to memorize our lessons, we were beaten with a stick so severely that it pained all day. If someone was unable to wake up, they used to throw cold water on him and beat him with a pipe," the child said.
Two officials of the seminary were captured, but the head of the religious school managed to escape. It is not clear why school authorities mistreated the students.
Trained for jihad
One of thousands of religious seminaries in Pakistan
Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission's senior official Abdul Hai, who had earlier visited the Madrassa Zakarya, told Deutsche Welle that the students were kept in dark rooms and were regularly flogged by the authorities.
Pakistan's Interior Ministry has since ordered a full investigation into the case.
"These young people were chained," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters. "They were brainwashed. The aggression these people felt toward society, other people, you can't expect them to feel particularly positive," Malik added.
Some parents of the rescued students told the media that the allegations that their children were given jihad training were false and an "attempt to disgrace Islam."
Adul Hai said it was not very likely that the mentally-disabled students could be recruited by the Taliban. However, he did not deny that students of the religious schools in Pakistan were used by the Islamists for recruitments.
"It is not an isolated incident. In Pakistan, these cases are frequent. Madrassas are known for maltreating their students. But that does not mean it only happens in madrassas," said Hai.
There are wildly varying figures on the number of religious seminaries operating in Pakistan.
The Pakistani government claims there are more than 15,000 madrassas in the country. Other sources say there are 24,000 with more than 7,000 in Kashmir and different tribal areas.
Pakistanis in Karachi have protested against religiously motivated suicide attacks in the past
Political activist Sikander Janjua told Deutsche Welle that there were more than 34,000 Islamic schools in Pakistan. He also claims that it is the policy of the Pakistani state to support religious extremism, and for that reason the state did not want to act against these schools.
"There is a network of religious schools in Pakistan that breed extremism and nurture future militants," said Janjua. He also said the mainstream educational institutions in Pakistan were not much different from these religious schools and to target only the madrasas was too simplistic.
"A few years ago, the police raided the Chemistry Department of Karachi University where they arrested three students who were trying to make bombs. Therefore, to say that only religious schools are the hub of religious fanaticism and militancy in Pakistan is not entirely correct," Janjua stressed.
Janjua added that, in his view, the main cause of religious extremism in Pakistan was economic and social injustice that was being used by the forces of extremism.
Replying to questions about financing from Deutsche Welle's Urdu Department, Pakistan's noted religious scholar, Dr. Muneer Ahmad, said that he was not convinced that the government pays for these schools.
"I don't think that they are actually funded by the state. I think it is individuals who support these people and these institutions. And the main idea - perhaps the basic ideology behind all this – is to support the dominance of Islam for which these militants are working," Ahmad said.
Need for seminary reform
The Pakistani government has started different projects to modernize the education system in the religious schools, but due to the lack of interest by the officials, the implementation of these projects is very slow. Even foreign donors have shown little interest in knowing where all the money is going.
Initial reforms undertaken by ex-president Musharraf never really took off
Social activists in Pakistan demand that the government regulate the countless seminaries in the country. They also want the government to change the syllabus of the schools.
Ex-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had initiated madrasa reforms during his tenure, however they never really took off.
Nazish Brohi, a sociologist and women's rights activist in Karachi, told foreign media in an interview that "all efforts at regulating madrasas have failed," adding "the government isn't very strong on oversight."
Many local studies claim that the educational curriculum, even in Pakistan's mainstream schools, teaches hatred against non-Muslims and imparts extremist views.
West's frustration with Pakistan
Western countries are wary of Pakistan's inadequate and half-hearted attempts at containing religious extremism and militancy in the country, which they believe are the main causes of the insurgency in Afghanistan and of terror attacks in several Western countries. They also accuse Islamabad of directly supporting some factions of the Taliban.
Authors: Shamil Shams/Rafat Saeed
Editor: Gregg Benzow