Karachi, Pakistan The mayor of this country’s largest city was driving me through its slums, and he was furious. He was looking at yet another illegally built religious school, or madrassa, run by hard-line clerics who are brainwashing boys and young men.
“There are more than 3,000 madrassas here in Karachi, all students from the northern areas (near the Afghan border),” Syed Mustafa Kamal complained bitterly. “Twenty percent of their students are potential jihadis.”
Welcome to Karachi, population 18 million, a city of fascinating and dangerous contradictions. Most U.S. supplies for the war in Afghanistan pass through its Arabian seaports, and so, reportedly, does the huge volume of Afghan heroin exported by networks of Taliban and criminals.
Karachi is the cultural and financial center of Pakistan and is tightly linked to Arab Gulf states. It is also a port gateway to Central Asia. And, says Kamal, it is the place where the Taliban may strike next.
The world is focused on the Taliban’s advance in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas, but their stealthy encroachment in Karachi gets little attention. Yet if they shut this city down, the jihadis could bring a nuclear-armed Pakistan to its knees.
The energetic Kamal, 37, who was minister for information technology in Sind province before becoming mayor, has been trying to bring more services to his city. Named one of three global “mayors of the moment” by Foreign Policy Magazine in 2008 for innovative urban planning, he shows me the city’s first computerized complaint center, where every caller gets an answer.
But, as we drive along flanked by two police vans with gunners peering through the roofs, the problems he faces seem overwhelming. Kamal points out illegal slums being built all over the city by new migrants, mostly Pashtuns from the tribal regions along the Afghan border. In these slums, he says, terrorists lie in wait.
There is a pattern: First, government-owned land is seized illegally, often carved out of hillsides overlooking the city. Then a mosque and religious school go up with money coming from the Arab Gulf. Then small houses pop up around the mosque complex and the area becomes a no-go zone for law enforcement.
Red flags ring the hilltops above these shantytowns. Red flags fly from shacks and run along the roofs of rundown apartment blocks; red flags are waved by a truckload of teen-agers zooming by us. The flags stand for the Awami National Party, a Pashtun secular group from tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Kamal says the ANP label is being used as a cover by religious militants, who are biding their time before they strike.
At the right moment, he believes, on orders from radical clerics, they will come down from the hills and out of their schools and throw the city into turmoil. Maybe they couldn’t take full control of Karachi. But, Kamal says, “they can bring the city to a halt.”
Some Pakistani analysts claim Kamal’s fears are overheated. He belongs to the controversial MQM political party, which was founded to represent Muslim refugees (known as muhajirs) who left India for Pakistan after the 1947 partition. The party has been accused of violent tactics and resentment toward Pashtuns who might threaten its longtime electoral hold on Karachi, the base of the party.
But there is plenty of evidence to back Kamal’s claims that militants have penetrated Karachi’s slums, including bomb attacks, assassinations, and a spate of recent arrests of terrorist suspects. Indeed, soon after my visit, militants firing from those very hills killed two MQM party workers, deliberately sparking violence that claimed dozens of lives.
Many of Karachi’s madrassas are linked to hard-line Sunni religious parties; their curriculum extols jihad and breeds hatred for Shiites. Efforts by former President Pervez Musharraf to reform madrassa curriculum failed abysmally.
Some big madrassas have links with jihadi organizations. Several are painted pink, in solidarity with the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad that was stormed by police in 2007. Kamal drives me by the huge, white, multistory Jamia Ashrafiya, which hosts thousands of students; the body of slain journalist Daniel Pearl was dumped near here.
“There is no control over these madrassas, and they are in strategic areas,” Kamal says. “They are places where recruitment happens.”
Because city police are run by the provincial government, which is controlled by a different party, Kamal has no authority to push back against the illegal expansion of these religious schools. However, provincial and federal officials show no interest in reining in the madrassas. And so they continue to indoctrinate young minds.
MQM was the only Pakistani political party that took a strong stand against the “peace deal” with the Taliban in the valley of Swat that gave the militants a foothold in a strategic region. “We believe that this country ought to be a secular, moderate, progressive, civilized democracy,” says MQM parliamentary leader Farrooq Sattar, “and not an extremist or fanatic, terrorist state.”
Militants have issued death threats against MQM’s leaders in Karachi, but Kamal is just as worried about his city’s future. When urging Pakistani leaders to halt Taliban gains near the Afghan border, President Obama should stress the need to save Karachi, as well.