Monday, May 5, 2008

Turkish Schools in Pakistan, a moderate approach

Today's article "Turkish Schools in Pakistan offer a milder form of Islam" from yesterdays IHT, discusses the growing enrollment of Pakistani students in Turkish educational institutions that strike a careful balance between academic and religious studies

These schools offer a desirable alternative to the poorly funded public school system and the religious institutions or Madrasas as they are known. (With the latter becoming increasingly notorious for pushing radical Islamic agenda's from Saudi funded Wahhabi charitable organizations) The Turkish alternative seeks a balance between the deeply spiritual traditions muslim states, and the technical training needed to advance one's education and find gainful employment.

While considered a European state, Turkey culturally straddles the European and Asian divide. As the historical seat of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over much of the middle east for centuries until the early 20th century, Turks are well aware of their spiritual roots and the influence of Islam as a political ideology yet they remain a secular state seeking membership to the European Union. Can their message of moderation reach the masses in Pakistan where hard line Islamic ideals have entrenched themselves among some of the most vulnerable of the nation's youth?


Turkish schools in Pakistan offer a milder form of Islam

Sabrina Tavernise
Sunday, May 4, 2008

KARACHI Pakistan: Praying in Pakistan has not been easy for Mesut Kacmaz, a moderate Muslim teacher from Turkey. He tried the mosque near his house, but it had Israeli and Danish flags painted on the floor for worshippers to step on. People from the mosque near his work warned him never to return wearing a tie. Pakistanis everywhere assume he is not Muslim because he has no beard. "Kill, fight, shoot," Kacmaz said. "This is a misinterpretation of Islam."

But that view is common in Pakistan, a frontier land for the future of Islam, where schools, nourished by Saudi and American money dating to the 1980s, have spread Islamic radicalism through the poorest parts of society. With a literacy rate of just 50 percent and a public school system near collapse, the country is particularly vulnerable.

Kacmaz (pronounced KATCH-maz) is part of a group of Turkish educators who have come to this battleground with an entirely different vision of Islam. Theirs is moderate and flexible, comfortably coexisting with the West while remaining distinct from it. Like Muslim Peace Corps volunteers, they promote this approach in schools, which are now established in more than 80 countries, Muslim and Christian.

Their efforts are important in Pakistan, a nuclear power whose stability - and whose vulnerability to fundamentalism - have become main preoccupations of U.S. foreign policy. Its tribal areas have become a refuge for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the battle against fundamentalism rests squarely on young people and the education they get.

At present, that education is extremely weak. The poorest Pakistanis cannot afford to send their children to public schools, which are free but require fees for books and uniforms. Some choose to send their children to madrasas, or religious schools, which, like aid organizations, offer free food and clothing, and many are boarding schools. Many simply teach, but some have radical agendas. At the same time, a growing middle class is rejecting public schools, which are chaotic and poorly financed, and choosing from a new array of private schools.

The Turkish schools, which have expanded to seven cities in Pakistan since the first one opened a decade ago, cannot transform the country on their own. But they offer an alternative approach that could help reduce the influence of Islamic extremists. They prescribe a strong Western curriculum, with courses taught in English and subjects ranging from math and science to English literature and Shakespeare.

They do not teach religion beyond the one class in Islamic studies that is required by the state. Unlike British-style private schools, however, they encourage Islam in their dormitories, where teachers set examples in lifestyle and prayer. "Whatever the West has of science, let our kids have it," said Erkam Aytav, a Turk who works in the new schools. "But let our kids have their religion as well."
That approach appeals to parents in Pakistan, who want their children to be capable of competing with the West without losing their identities to it.

Allahdad Niazi, a retired professor of Urdu in Quetta, a frontier town near the Afghan border, took his son out of an elite military school because it was too authoritarian and did not sufficiently encourage Islam. Instead, he enrolled him in the Turkish school, called PakTurk.
"Private schools can't make our sons good Muslims," Niazi said, sitting on the floor in a Quetta house. "Religious schools can't give them modern education. PakTurk does both." The model is the brainchild of a Turkish Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen. A preacher with millions of followers in Turkey, Gulen, 69, comes from a tradition of Sufism, an introspective, mystical strain of Islam. He has lived in exile in the United States since 2000, after getting into trouble with secular Turkish officials.

Gulen's idea, Aytav said, is that "without science, religion turns to radicalism, and without religion, science is blind and brings the world to danger." The schools are putting into practice a Turkish Sufi philosophy that took its most modern form during the last century, after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, crushed the Islamic caliphate in the 1920's. Islamic thinkers responded by trying to bring Western science into the faith they were trying to defend. In the 1950's, while Arab Islamic intellectuals like Sayyid Qutb were firmly rejecting the West, Turkish thinkers like Said Nursi were seeking ways to coexist with it.

In Karachi, a sprawling city that has had its own struggles with radicalism - the American reporter Daniel Pearl was killed here, and the city's famed Binori madrasa is said to have sheltered Osama bin Laden - the two approaches compete daily. The Turkish school is in a poor neighborhood in the south of the city where residents are mostly Pashtun, a strongly tribal ethnic group whose poorer fringes have been among the most susceptible to radicalism. Kacmaz, who became principal 10 months ago, ran into trouble almost as soon as he began. The locals were suspicious of the Turkish staffers, who, with their ties and clean-shaven faces, looked like math teachers from Middle America.

"They asked me several times, 'Are they Muslim? Do they pray? Are they drinking at night?' " said Ali Showkat, a Pakistani who is a vice principal of the school. When he found goats napping by piles of rubbish near the school's entrance, Kacmaz asked a local religious leader to help get people to stop throwing their trash near the school - to no avail. Exasperated, he hung an Islamic saying on the outer wall of the school: "Cleanliness is half of faith." When he prayed at a mosque, two young men followed him out and told him not to return wearing a tie because it was un-Islamic. "I said, 'Show me a verse in the Koran where it was forbidden,' " Kacmaz said. The two men were wearing glasses, and he told them that, scripturally, there was no difference between a tie and glasses.

"Behind their words there was no Hadith," he said, referring to Islam's codified oral traditions, "only misunderstanding."

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Karachi and Quetta in Pakistan, and from Istanbul.

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