A human rights activist in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) has warned of increased recruitment of young men from Islamic schools (madrasahs) in Pakistan to join Taliban forces in the event of a possible US-led attack on Afghanistan. "These boys are brainwashed and are too young to know what they are getting themselves into. Some are as young as seven," the chairman of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission in Peshawar, Afrasiyab Khattak, told IRIN.
"They are convinced that martyrdom is their goal, and it can be achieved by fighting for the Taliban," Khattak said. The Islamic religious schools, which date back many centuries, offer teachings from the Islamic holy book, the Koran, and mushroomed in the 80s in Pakistan, he added. They became particularly prevalent in the NWFP following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when they became a breeding ground for Mujahidin fighters, and now for the Taliban, he explained.
Khattak added that mainly poor families sent their children to madrasahs - families who could not afford schools offering the national curriculum. "They are uneducated people and don't realise what their children can get involved in," he stressed.
Of some 40 madrasahs in the NWFP, Darul Fuqara is the biggest in the provincial capital, Peshawar. It has 3,000 students and, according to Khattak, is well known for its pro-Taliban sentiments. The boys themselves are testament to this, saying they are ready to defend Afghanistan in the event of US-led retaliation for the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Israr Khan, aged 17, told IRIN: "We are here reading the Koran, and it teaches us to wage jihad [holy war] against the enemy of Islam." Originating from a poor Pakistani family living in a nearby village, he said he was ready to join the Taliban forces. The madrasah is run by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, which is the main religious force in the NWFP and main supporter of the Taliban. "They consider Osama as a hero, not a terrorist," Khattak said. The Saudi-born dissident, Osama bin Laden, is wanted in connection with the events of 11 September.
Fiaz ur Rehman, a religious leader who runs the madrasah, had no hesitation in voicing open support for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime. He told IRIN: "We will support our Taliban brothers, and these young men are ready to fight for jihad in Afghanistan." Ikram Shah from the village of Yaro Hussain in Mardan, 45 km from Peshawar, said: "I will fight shoulder to shoulder with the Taliban against invaders."
According to Khattak, there is not one madrasah in Peshawar which has not contributed to the Taliban. He said many of their students came from poor families in the central Pakistani province of Punjab.
Khattak stressed, however, that not all religious schools countrywide were pro-Taliban. He said that the main problem in Pakistan was that they were not state-controlled. As a result, he said, many were funded by outside extremist Islamic forces which had links with the Taliban. Khattak called for tighter federal control over the schools. "The government should regulate their curriculum, standardise teaching in madrasahs and incorporate modern education," he added.
But for many students at the religious schools, defending Islam at any cost is their primary aim. Nur Shaykh, aged 22, from the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, told IRIN: "Islam teaches us peace, patience and tolerance, and I will act according to these principles." However, he went on to say: "It does not matter how young we are, it is our duty to defend Islam, and if we die we die for a good cause."