Pakistan to Expel Foreign Students at Religious Schools

In an effort to combat terrorism, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf announced Friday that the country would expel foreign students attending religious schools, or madrassas. At least one of the July 7 bombers in London visited a Pakistani madrassa. Roland Buerk of the BBC has more details.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In Pakistan, foreign students are urging President Pervaiz Musharraf not to expel them from the country. Musharraf announced on Friday that he would ban international students from the country's Islamic schools, or madrassas. The schools have been accused of spreading extremism. At least one of the alleged suicide bombers in the July 7th London bombing attack is known to have visited a religious school in Pakistan. Joining us from Islamabad is reporter Roland Buerk, who files for the BBC.

Roland Buerk, how many foreign students are studying in Pakistan at these madrassas, and where are they from?

Mr. ROLAND BUERK (BBC): Well, according to the government, there are around 1,400 foreign students in the country's madrassas. Now it's slightly unclear how they've come to that figure, which is definitely an estimate. Are they simply counting those people who come from places like Britain and France and Europe, who are often second-generation people, who are living in those countries but whose parents are from Pakistan, or are they also counting people from neighboring countries, like Afghanistan?

LYDEN: So the number could actually be much higher than 1,400.

Mr. BUERK: It could be much higher. Fourteen hundred is a pretty low figure if you consider that there are some 20,000 or so madrassas in Pakistan with 1.7 million students.

LYDEN: But tell us a little bit more the madrassas. They're not all the same. What kinds of education can students receive in Pakistan?

Mr. BUERK: Well, madrassas really vary very greatly. The very traditional madrassas concentrate purely on the Koran and Islamic law. And in that kind of madrassa, you have kids getting up at 4:00 in the morning, and they sway backwards and forwards as they attempt to learn the entire Koran by heart. Others have a more varied curriculum. They're more modern madrassas. And they teach English and computer science and ordinary science subjects and mathematics as well. And for many children here, that's the only chance they get to go to a school at all.

LYDEN: How are they funded?

Mr. BUERK: They're funded by donations. They're also funded by donations from foreign countries as well, and that's where the madrassa system in South Asia becomes a bit controversial. Some of them are thought to receive money from Saudi Arabia and other countries, and some are accused of receiving money to foster and to spread extremism.

LYDEN: Now there's special attention, I think, being paid to the school visited by 22-year-old Shehzad Tanweer, who was born in Great Britain. He is alleged to be one of the July 7th bombers. And he visited a school last year in Lahore. Can you tell us a little bit more about that school?

Mr. BUERK: Well, that school is one of the ones that has been accused by some people of spreading extremism. But I think what's interesting about his case is that when we at the BBC went to visit his village and to see his relatives, who he had visited there as well, they actually said that since his previous visit to Pakistan, they've noticed he got more extreme in his views; that he'd become more radicalized in Leeds in the United Kingdom. And I think that backs up what Pervaiz Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, is saying. He's saying that, `Yes, we do have a problem here in Pakistan that we need to tackle. But at the same time it's quite simply not all our fault, and it needs to be a joint effort between Pakistan and between other countries as well to try to stamp out extremism.'

LYDEN: Religious leaders in charge of the madrassas have denounced this decision quite collectively. They say that it's unjust to expel innocent students. Do they have support in Pakistan? Some people say just change the curriculum; don't expel the students.

Mr. BUERK: They have said that. They've said that it's unfair to stop this practice of people coming in from abroad to go to madrassas. They say that's been going on for around a hundred years. But it remains to be seen, really, how much support they are going to have--the Islamic political parties who've said this are going to have amongst the public. This is part of a wider crackdown here in Pakistan. Some 600 people have been rounded up as part of a crackdown on extremist, banned organizations. And last week the religious parties tried to organize public demonstrations against this crackdown, but only around 2,000 people turned up, which is a very tiny number. So we'll have to see if this latest step to expel foreign students from madrassas will provoke a bigger response on the streets.

LYDEN: Roland Buerk, a reporter for the BBC in Islamabad, thank you very, very much for speaking with us.

Mr. BUERK: Thank you.

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