A Jihadist Teaching Peace in Kashmir

   Tanvir ul-Islam was a commander of Islamic militant guerrillas in Kashmir, fighting — with support from Pakistan — against Indian rule in most of that Himalayan region.  Eventually, he decided that war was no answer for Kashmiris’ problems, and he decided to build peace instead.  But leaving the jihad is a bit like leaving the mafia.  Usually, the only way you do it is dead . . . . 

   Tanvir Muhammad, a former guerrilla in the Kashmir war, stands outside an earthquake-damaged building at one of three schools he runs for orphans and refugees from the conflict. Months after the 2005 earthquake, students were studying in unheated tents. Muhammad is struggling to rebuild in what he says is a race against militant groups to teach and influence Kashmir's next generation.

Tanvir Muhammad, a former guerrilla in the Kashmir war, stands outside an earthquake-damaged building at one of three schools he runs for orphans and refugees from the conflict. Months after the 2005 earthquake, students were studying in unheated tents. Muhammad is struggling in what he says is a race against militant groups to influence Kashmir’s next generation. (Photo by James Rupert)

From Newsday — 31 October 2006

By James Rupert — Staff Correspondent

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan – Tanvir Muhammad is worried as he surveys the school he has half built amid the rubble of this earthquake-crushed city. While he struggles to re-establish his three schools for orphans and destitute children in Pakistan’s Kashmir region, his former allies in the Islamic militant movements here are running scores of them.

Muhammad once was Tanvir ul-Islam, a top leader of the guerrillas fighting India’s control of most of the Kashmir region. But he decided years ago that the war, and the Pakistani militant Islamic groups that back it, were destroying Kashmir and its culture. He changed his name, hung up his gun and opened schools to provide secular education for orphans of the war.

Quitting the Kashmir jihad was a little like trying to resign from the Mafia: Usually, the only way you do it is dead. Militants kidnapped him, Muhammad said, and threatened to kill him out of suspicion that he might betray their secrets. Rescued by friends in the divided militant community, he has spent 10 years building his schools and running them on a curriculum developed by Oxford University.

Teaching in tents

But a year after the October 2005 earthquake, Muhammad and others fear the disaster has let militant groups take the lead over the government and political moderates in educating Kashmir’s young survivors. Aid agencies have estimated that the quake destroyed as many as 8,000 of the 11,000 or so schools in the Pakistani part of Kashmir. It killed perhaps 18,000 pupils and orphaned thousands more.

Pakistan’s army-led government formally began rebuilding its schools in July, but little has been accomplished, residents and aid agencies say. In Bagh district, where 800 schools were destroyed, “no permanent school construction has taken place,” according to the British chapter of the aid group Save the Children.

In Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani-administered region of Azad Kashmir, the one rebuilt school is the Army Public School, which caters to children of military officers and to others who can afford the relatively steep tuition. There, about 30 earthquake-resistant, prefabricated classrooms stood recently around neatly trimmed gardens. A marble plaque near the gate proclaimed the new school had been “donated by the National Highway Authority,” a government agency headed by a retired general.

A few blocks away, Muhammad, now 42 with four children of his own, watched laborers weld the steel frames of a planned science lab and computer room for his school. The new, earthquake-resistant construction is expensive, and he says he’s gone $10,000 into debt this year. And two of his three schools in the Muzaffarabad area are still operating in tents. “What will we be able to do for the children in tents during the winter?” he asked.

Muhammad’s project, called the Sawera (or Dawn) Foundation, has gotten its modest funding from local professionals, said Muhammad Idriss Mughal, a backer of Sawera and an official at the Azad Kashmir Supreme Court. “This school has been a center of excellence, and it got support from well-educated people,” he said. But the earthquake “has put everyone here into financial crisis” and Sawera’s funding has dried up, he said.

In contrast, Pakistan’s Islamic religious charities, some of which are closely linked to the militant guerrilla organizations, get heavy funding from across the country and are running dozens of schools, Muhammad said.

Lashkar-i-Toiba, a group designated as terrorist by the U.S. government, was banned in 2002 by President Pervez Musharraf. Its offices throughout Pakistan quickly painted over their signs with the name Jamaat ud-Daawa, which described them as a charity. Jamaat ud-Daawa took a leading role in relief work immediately after the earthquake, and its officials have told journalists that it is teaching Kashmiri orphans at madrassas, or religious schools, that it runs throughout Pakistan. A BBC crew visited one Jamaat ud-Daawa school this month and found its student body singing a song that proclaimed: “When people deny our faith, ask them to convert and if they don’t, destroy them utterly.”

Preaching ‘kashmiriyat’

Jamaat ud-Daawa has denied it is promoting extremist ideas among its students, but Muhammad said his contacts in the militant world say it is. “If it is the fundamentalists who take care of these children, they will teach them their own values,” he said, “while I am trying to teach them to be peace-loving and tolerant.”

An ethos of tolerance, called kashmiriyat, evolved in this region over centuries of overlapping influence by Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. But in 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim Pakistan, the two new states immediately went to war to control Kashmir.

The battle descended into a brutal guerrilla war beginning in the 1980s. The dead are estimated at anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000, and with the long bloodshed, “the culture of the gun has replaced the Kashmiri culture of peace and tolerance,” Muhammad said.

Growing up on the Indian side of Kashmir, Muhammad saw a brother-in-law killed by Indian troops and joined a local guerrilla group. Eventually, he crossed to the Pakistani side and became a leader of the United Jihad Council, an umbrella group that sought to unite the disparate Kashmiri factions.

Muhammad soon became disenchanted with what he said is Pakistan’s effort to control the Kashmiris for its own purposes. Under Pakistani influence, for example, “so many of our missions were hitting soft targets, which means the people dying were the poor.”

He concluded that the war could not be won, and instead was destroying the lives of Kashmiris. “The sighs and cries of our sisters changed me,” he said. “To every sister who is a widow and to every orphan, I owe an obligation.”

He disassociated himself from the jihad in 1994 and began speaking out against violence as a strategy, which displeased Pakistan’s government. In his office, Muhammad showed a 1995 order, on government letterhead, noting his “undesirable activities” and ordering that Pakistani officials not meet with him.

Kashmiri guerrillas “harassed my family in India” and kidnapped him for a time, warning him against disloyalty. He declines to mention details. “The atmosphere here is still unconducive to discussing everything,” he said. Now, he says, he has reached a compromise with Pakistani authorities: They let him pursue his social work, but bar him from organizing an anti-war political movement.

Like former militants who have abandoned the fight in other wars, Muhammad is isolated. “A few people have given up the jihad in Kashmir, but they do it privately. … They don’t declare it publicly as Tanvir has done,” said Abrar Haider, the Muzaffarabad correspondent of Jang, an Urdu-language newspaper. “Many people doubt him; they cannot understand someone who has given up the struggle.”

© Newsday, Inc. 2006

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