Pakistani Religious Schools to Defy Expulsion Order

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Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has ordered religious schools to expel all foreign students by Saturday, but the governing body of the country's 1,200 madrassas said it will resist. The order was issued in July after the terrorist bombing in London in an effort to fight religious extremism.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Pakistan's president, Pervaiz Musharraf, has ordered religious schools to expel all foreign students by tomorrow. This is an effort to cut back on religious extremism. The order was issued in July, following the terrorist bombings in London. This week, however, the governing body of Pakistan's madrassas said it will resist. We called the BBC's Zaffar Abbas in Islamabad to learn more about the situation.

And first off, can you describe for us the role that madrassas play in Pakistani life? They're pretty numerous and pretty influential, aren't they?

Mr. ZAFFAR ABBAS (BBC): Oh, yes, absolutely. They have been in South Asia for centuries. These are the traditional centers of religious teaching, and in Pakistan alone, there are something like 12,000 madrassas. Many of them have come up in the last decade or so. And they are right from the border with Afghanistan down to the port city of Karachi. These are the places where mostly poor people send their children for learning Koranic teaching, basic education, and the other attraction, of course, is that there is free boarding and lodging over there, and with the Pakistani educational system in shambles, this is a pretty attractive place for poor families to send their children.

INSKEEP: Why are foreign students of special concern to Pakistani authorities?

Mr. ABBAS: Foreign students have become a special concern mainly after a number of people who were found to be involved in the bombings in London in July this year. The intelligence found out that a couple of them had traveled to Pakistan and had stayed in one of the madrassas. But that is not the only reason. There have been a number of militants who were arrested in Indonesia involved in one of the extremist groups over there, who had studied in one of the madrasses in Pakistan. And a suggestion or an impression was being created that many of the Muslim extremists involved in various militant activities outside the country had their roots in some of the madrassas in Pakistan. That doesn't mean that all of them have been involved in extremism, but certainly President Musharraf has decided that foreign students have absolutely no role in these madrassas. They should leave the country, and in the future, none of the people from outside will be allowed to come to Pakistan to study in these schools.

INSKEEP: Well--so the president has made that statement. The madrassas have said they will resist this order. Does the government of Pakistan actually have the power to track down numerous foreign students and take them away?

Mr. ABBAS: Well, most of them are enrolled with the Pakistani authorities. They had come to Pakistan on valid visas, so it will not be difficult to track them down and expel them. The major question is whether the government has the real political will to expel them. So we have spoken to the Pakistani interior minister, Aftab Sherpao. He says that the deadline is there. The government is firm. There will be no backtracking. What they are discussing with the madrassa association is of where to send these people back to their respective countries, so it may take a week or more, so they are not going to accept the madrassa alliance decision to oppose the idea. The students will have to leave. How that is done is being worked out.

INSKEEP: You mentioned political will here, the political aspect of this. Is it possible that Pakistani authorities could quietly let this order slip away in some cases?

Mr. ABBAS: At the moment, it seems that the government is pretty determined to send these students--about 700 of them are left in the country, and the decision is there. If there is resistance, probably the process may slow down, but it seems this time, President Musharraf is quite confident that the foreign students will not be allowed to live in this country.

INSKEEP: Zaffar Abbas of the BBC in Islamabad. Thanks very much.

Mr. ABBAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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