Where Afghanistan’s new Taliban leaders went to school

AKORA KHATTAK, Pakistan — The Taliban have taken Afghanistan and this school couldn’t be prouder.

Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa, one of Pakistan’s largest and oldest seminaries, has trained more Taliban leaders than any school in the world. Now the alumni hold key positions in Afghanistan.

Critics of the school have called it a jihad university and blamed it for helping to sow violence in the region for decades. And they worry that extremist madrasas and the Islamist parties associated with them could be encouraged by the Taliban’s victory, potentially fueling further radicalism in Pakistan, despite that country’s efforts to host more than 30,000 seminaries under more government control.

The school says it has changed, arguing that the Taliban should be given a chance to show that they have gone beyond their bloody ways since they first ruled Afghanistan two decades ago.

“The world has seen their ability to lead the country through their victories, both on the diplomatic front and on the battlefield,” said Rashidul Haq Sami, the seminary’s vice chancellor.

A softening of the Taliban is far from assured, given a wave of violence earlier this year, reports of retaliatory killings in the country, restrictions on girls going to school and restrictions on free speech. But Sami argued that the Taliban takeover could have been even bloodier, indicating they “wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the 1990s.”

Darul Uloom Haqqania, about 60 miles from the Afghan border, has had an outsized effect there. The seminary alumni founded the Taliban movement and ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Pakistan’s powerful army often uses its leaders to influence the Taliban, experts say.

His late Chancellor, Samiul Haq, who was murdered in his hometown in Islamabad in 2018 and was the father of Mr Sami, was known as the “Father of the Taliban.”

“As the alma mater of dozens of Taliban leaders, Haqqania certainly commands their respect,” said Azmat Abbas, author of “Madrasa Mirage: A Contemporary History of Islamic Schools in Pakistan.”

Sirajuddin Haqqani, 41, who led much of the Taliban’s military efforts and wears a $5 million bounty from the US government, is Afghanistan’s new acting interior minister and an alumnus. So are Amir Khan Muttaqi, the new foreign minister, and Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the higher education minister.

The justice minister, the head of the Afghan Ministry of Water and Energy and a variety of governors, military commanders and judges also attended the Haqqania seminar, school administrators say.

“We are proud that our students in Afghanistan first broke the Soviet Union and are now packing the US,” said Mr. Sami. “It is an honor for the madrasa that its graduates are now ministers and occupy high positions in the Taliban government.”

Many of the alumni take the name Haqqani as a symbol of pride. The Haqqani Network — the Taliban’s military wing responsible for American hostage taking, complex suicide bombings and targeted killings — is named after the madrasa and maintains connections there.

More than 4,000 students, mostly from poor families, attend the sprawling seminary, a collection of multi-storey concrete buildings in a small riverside town just east of the city of Peshawar. Courses range from memorization of the Quran to Arabic literature.

During a recent visit, a scholar gave a lecture on Islamic jurisprudence to a packed house of 1,500 senior students. They burst out laughing at an instructor’s jokes. Other students lined up outside for lunch and played volleyball or cricket.

Among them, the Taliban’s victory is a source of great pride.

“The Taliban have finally defeated the US after nearly 20 years of fighting, and the whole world is accepting this fact,” said Abdul Wali, a 21-year-old student. “It also shows the foresight and dedication of our teachers and former alumni to Afghanistan.”

Mr. Wali praised Haqqania as a prime place to memorize the Quran, which some Muslims believe will take them and their families to heaven. “Haqqania is one of the few prestigious madrasas in the country where students consider studying an honor because of its history, prominent scholars who teach and high-quality Islamic education,” he said.

Pakistan has long had an uneasy relationship with madrasas like Haqqania. Leaders who once saw seminaries as a way to influence events in Afghanistan now see them as a source of conflict within Pakistan. The country has its own Taliban movement, the Pakistani Taliban or TTP, which has been responsible for a slew of violent attacks in recent years. Both sides reached a ceasefire this month.

Renewed signs of radicalism in madrasas have appeared, especially since the fall of Kabul. Students have held pro-Taliban demonstrations. At the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the site of a deadly raid by security personnel 14 years ago, Taliban flags were hoisted over a girl’s madrasa next door.

Meanwhile, the madrasas’ usefulness has diminished as Pakistani officials have recently taken a more direct role in Afghanistan’s affairs, said Muhammad Israr Madani, an Islamabad-based researcher who studies religious matters.

Amid that pressure, the Pakistani government has tried to spur a mix of financial support and behind the scenes to curb radicalism within the seminaries.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government gave the Haqqania seminar $1.6 million in 2018 and $1.7 million in 2017 to “mainstream” it. The money helped the madrasa, among other things, with the construction of a new building, a badminton court and a computer lab.

Haqqania has expanded its curriculum to include English, Mathematics and Computer Science. It demands full documentation from foreign students, including those from Afghanistan, and administrators said it had a zero-tolerance policy for anti-state activities.

Education experts in Pakistan say the effort has met with some success and Haqqania does not champion militancy as it once did.

Yet, they said, such madrasas teach a narrow interpretation of Islam. The classes focus on arguing with opposing religions rather than critical thinking, and emphasize the enforcement of practices such as punishing theft with amputation and extramarital sex with stoning. That leaves some of their students vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups.

“In an environment of broad support for the Taliban, both in government and in society, it would be naive to hope that madrasas and other mainstream educational institutions would adopt a different approach to education than a pro-Taliban,” said Mr. Abbas, the author.

The school syllabus may have less influence than individual instructors.

Whenever a madrasa student is caught in an act of violence, the broader approach is to hold the madrasa system and associated syllabus responsible for the sick and no attention is paid to the teacher or teachers who influenced the student said Mr. Abbas. .

Graduates who attended Haqqania in the 1980s and 1990s said they had received no military training. However, some said that teachers often discussed jihad openly and encouraged students to join Afghanistan’s insurgency. One named Ali said students can easily slip into Afghanistan to fight during seminary vacations. He requested that only his last name be used, citing security concerns.

Vice-Chancellor Sami said students are neither trained for combat nor required to fight in Afghanistan.

School administrators point to recent statements by some groups in Afghanistan as reflective moderate teachings. After the Taliban took Kabul, the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-Sami Party, founded by Mr. Sami’s father, urged them to guarantee the safety of Afghans and foreigners, especially diplomats, of religious and ethnic minorities and provide women with access to higher education.

Either way, Sami said, the world has little choice but to rely on the Taliban’s ability to rule.

“I advise the international community to give the Taliban a chance to rule the country,” he said. “If they are not allowed to work, there will be another civil war in Afghanistan and it will affect the entire region.”

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