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Most Muslim boys and girls growing up in Pakistan in the early 1970s are likely to have learned the Arabic text of the Quran through a madrassa. A small staff comprising a pesh-imam, a muezzin and an understudy were paid miniscule salaries to take care of the five daily prayers and two sessions of Quran teaching to the neighbourhood children. The monthly rent from a row of small shops lining the outside wall of the mosque was used for the maintenance and upkeep of the mosque, and the madrassa was very much a local institution. That was then, and today if you say ‘madrassa’, the image thus conjured is a very different one.

During Gen Zia’s military rule, characterised among other things by a long USA-sponsored jihad, the old-fashioned madrassas were replaced by huge, intimidating, multi-crore-rupee building complexes, now dominating every locality of the urban Pakistan. These new, non-traditional structures, in many cases occupy amenity plots in violation of land allotment and building regulations and their concerns are nothing less than the national and international jihadi politics. More often than not, these new madrassas belong to the Deobandi sect.

I became conscious of the presence of these grand madrassas around the early 2000s when students residing in the hostel of a madrassa, next door to the block of flats in Gulistan-e Jauhar where I then lived, would play football every afternoon in the ground outside. Once we heard shots and were later told that there had been a gunfight between some outsiders who had come to ‘take over’ the complex and those ‘defending’ it. It was in 2009 when I travelled by road from Peshawar to Karachi and tried to count the huge madrassas located on the highways outside towns in the three provinces that I passed through. It occurred to me that someone must conduct a study to find out the area of land used by these new institutions and the social and other kinds of impact that they are creating in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Another thing that struck me is that these madrassas also function as boarding schools — usually housing in their hostels students who have no connection at all with the local community. This phenomenon alone makes them an alien presence, having non-local objectives bordering, as I mentioned before, on the internationalist.

This was evident by the role-playing show organised on the Independence Day in 2006 at the Jamia Rasheedia, located in one of the northern-most suburbs of Karachi, called Gulshan-i-Maymar. It was a time when Gen Musharraf still ruled the roost in the Islamic Republic. Many of the players active on the international scene at the time were portrayed — the US president George W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden, the UN secretary general Kofi Annan, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and his Pakistani counterpart, in addition to unnamed representatives of India, Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah. These characters mouthed what the students playing their roles, and the teachers directing them, took to be their positions on the contemporary status of the jihad.

But the exciting thing was that all this was being done in English. Apart from the few people specially invited from the city to witness and appreciate the special English learning batch of the Jamia’s students, practically none of the spectators followed a word of English, which did not in any way diminish the rapt attention they paid to the proceedings. The ‘talk show’ was organised more or less like the regular fare of the various ‘infotainment’ TV channels of the country, although all kinds of images of human and other creatures are supposedly banned under the Deobandi interpretation of sharia, and drama, as far as its visual representation goes, is also a despised act. The result was that hardly any effort was made to make the players look like the roles they were enacting. As it happened, poor George Dubya sported a much longer beard than Osama as the latter was played by a young boy with a dismal growth on his chin.

The ‘debate’ was quite revealing as it characterised all the favourite fantasies of the Pakistani fundamentalist mind, which shares its preferred version of today’s world with that of the fundamentalist Neocons: that it is a worldwide struggle between Jihadi Islam and ‘the West’. However, the participants had a highly unrealistic view of Pakistan’s capabilities, nuclear and otherwise, in the international arena. Near the end of the show, when Bush and Bin Laden looked tired of constantly calling each other “Terrorist!” on the top of their voice, suddenly the unnamed Hamas leader broke into a longish sermon on the intricacies of the jihadi responsibilities, directed specifically at Gen Musharraf who sat peevishly next to Karzai.

As soon as the sermon came to a close, the president of Pakistan rose from his seat, saying: “You have opened my eyes! Now I will wholeheartedly support the jihad the world over”. Hearing which, all the anti-jihad characters, led of course by George W. Bush, stood up and, in a rare display of action in the ‘play’, ran for cover heading straight out of the performance hall, while Musharraf was seen embracing ‘the Hamas’, encouraged by loud applause from the predominantly non-Anglophile audience.

The rather unrealistic, and unintentionally comical, view of the world and its affairs did not in the least bother the sponsors of the show at the madrassa, whose sole obsession was reflected in the question they eagerly put to the ‘special guests’ before inviting them to a sumptuous lunch: “Angrezi to achhi boli na larkon ne?" (The boys spoke impressive English, didn't they?)