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Pakistan begins pilot scheme to stop redicalisation in madras

Pakistan begins pilot scheme to stop radicalisation in madrasas
Officials hope to open ‘window of influence’ on schools, including Jamaat ul Dawa centre linked to Mumbai bombing
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Jon Boone in Lahore, Monday 28 January 2013 10.28 GMT

The Pakistan authorities are said to have taken over administrative control of the seminary and schools in Muridke after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

It has been branded a terrorist training camp, an ideological hub for the 2008 Mumbai bombers, and the seat of a preacher considered so dangerous that the US has offered $10m (£6.2m) for information leading to his arrest.

But rather than trying to close it down, the Pakistani authorities are helping the religious seminary and school in Muridke, a town 50 miles from the Indian border in Punjab province, revamp itself and retrain its teaching staff. In the coming months teachers and vocational trainers employed by the government of Punjab will join the staff at Muridke as part of a pilot scheme being run in 18 radical religious schools in the province.

The programme deepens the Pakistani state’s involvement in a centre which it supposedly took administrative control of soon after the Mumbai attack but which most observers say remains firmly under the authority of Hafiz Saeed, a burly preacher closely associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group and its preaching wing, Jamaat ul Dawa (JuD).

The move should “open a window of influence” on the “closed environment” of the JuD madrasa and help to halt the radicalisation of students, promises Mushtaq Sukhera, a senior counter-terrorism officer in Punjab. More importantly, the government says it will help JuD disentangle itself from its long tradition of jihad and terrorism outside Pakistan’s borders by encouraging it to focus exclusively on its political work and building up its extensive network of schools and health services in Pakistan.

Although LeT is technically banned, its fighters have remained within JuD, Sukhera said.

“What to do with these cadres? You have to divert their energies. As a government policy we want to encourage them towards philanthropic and social work,” he said.

But there are doubts about how much the state’s blessing for the non-violent activities of groups such as JuD could really help to neutralise a terrorist organisation that almost sparked a war with India in 2008.

Stephen Tankel, a US expert on the organisation, said it was still not clear whether Pakistan had decided once and for all to decommission a militant group that has long been a useful proxy in its struggle against its far stronger neighbour.

“They have been talking about trying to move people from fighting to functional society for years, but have they really been de-radicalised and demobilised, or have they just been put in reserve?”

Some fear that allowing such people to play a greater role in politics and society is too high a price to pay in a country that appears to be becoming ever more intolerant.

“In Pakistan extremism is getting stronger,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based academic. “And extremism, ultimately, is the basis of terrorism.”

Diplomats and security experts say the organisation has already had to reduce its activities in Indian-occupied Kashmir after Pakistan’s army started discouraging LeT and other groups from sneaking militants across the contested “line of control” in the province from 2004.

Recently JuD has become far more politically active, throwing itself into the middle of public controversies for the first time. Despite the $10m reward offered by the US government’s Rewards for Justice programme for information leading to the arrest of Saeed, the 62-year-old lives openly.

“The bounty has only increased support for me because it has strengthened the anger and resentment in Pakistan towards the US,” he told the Guardian during a long conversation in a sparsely decorated room in one of the organisation’s buildings in Lahore.

Almost everything written about him by the western and Indian media is “propaganda”, he says. He claims never to have met Ajmal Kasab, the recently executed Mumbai gunman, or to have had any affiliation with LeT.

“None of these things are true,” he said. “They are just claims made by the Indians because of our vocal support for the people of occupied Kashmir.”

On 17 December he called a few thousand supporters to the streets of Lahore to protest against tentative efforts by India and Pakistan to bolster the pitifully small amount of cross-border trade.

It is a step broadly supported by economists and business people but Saeed regards the slashing of tariffs or the giving of more visas to Indian businessmen as selling out the Kashmir struggle.At the end of day-long procession to the Wagah customs post on the Indian border, just 16 miles from Lahore, the leading lights of Difa-i-Pakistan, a coalition of hardline religious groups, took turns to denounce India and praise jihad.

Many members of the crowd carried the flags of banned terrorist groups. A small number of men brandished assault rifles and hand guns as they tore around on motorbikes.

A group of deaf and speech-impaired JuD supporters standing on top of a bus summed up the mood by repeatedly using their hands to theatrically sign: “I want to kill Hindus.”

Opinions are divided on whether JuD will succeed in influencing the country’s politics. Extremist parties rarely do well in elections, and Saeed insists he is interested only in changing Pakistan’s “character” by offering cheap schooling to children.

This month’s protest in Lahore attracted scant media attention.But JuD is playing an ever increasing role in Pakistani life. It has a slick online presence with enthusiastic volunteers running websites, Twitter feeds and a forthcoming smartphone app. Politicians on Pakistan’s crowded right wing are reluctant to criticise groups that could help turn out votes in elections.

The organisation is often praised for its relief efforts during natural disasters and its health services, in addition to its many schools around the country, continue to grow.

In one upmarket area of Lahore a first aid station emblazoned with JuD insignia and gory posters of alleged Indian atrocities in Kashmir sits amid a market area of banks, coffee shops and boutiques.

Two minivan ambulances are on 24-hour standby. This year Saeed addressed a well-heeled and well-attended Ramadan evening meal thrown in his honour in the neighbourhood.

All of this state-blessed activity is helping JuD to “seep deep into society”, said Rizvi, the analyst, who believes the organisation’s political wing is now so entrenched that the military would not be able to control it even if it wanted to.

“The situation will only change if the state makes very clear to people that these militant organisations are undesirable,” he said. “If you hobnob with these groups then it just makes them appear acceptable to ordinary people.”

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