August Issue 2008
School for Scandal
Jamia Binoria recently shot into prominence after a controversial documentary ran on the US-based news channel, Fox News, showing two teenaged Pakistani-American brothers forced into studying religious education against their will at the madrassah. The documentary, Karachi Kids, made by US-based Farhan Reza, showed how Noor and Mahboob Elahi Khan from Atlanta, Georgia, were indoctrinated at the allegedly Taliban-backed Jamia Binoria because their father, a taxi-driver, didn’t want them to be ‘corrupted’ by an American education.
Since the airing of Karachi Kids, both brothers were taken back to the US in the second week of July by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Pakistani authorities, following an intervention by US Representative Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas. Since then, Jamia Binoria has been targeted by Pakistan’s immigration authorities and local and foreign intelligence agencies
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has already imposed a ban on issuing religious education visas, put eight foreign students at Jamia Binoria on a blacklist for violating the country’s education visa policy by not leaving Pakistan despite the expiration of their visas. The eight students placed on the blacklist included the Khan brothers. The six foreign students still holed up inside include an American girl, four female students from Thailand and one male student from Fiji. During the third week of July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally issued deportation orders for all the remaining students, but once again, the madrassah authorities have refused to give in.
Straddling the maze of dusty and partly paved streets in Karachi’s SITE area, Binoria stands as the country’s largest madrassah catering to foreign students. Fear and anxiety run high on the faces of these foreign, devout Islamic students, who expect the government to swoop in and force them to leave at any time. “We no longer send requests for visa extensions,” said Maulana Mufti Mohammad Naeem, founder and head of this sprawling, 12-acre seminary for the past 20 years. “We don’t want all of our foreign students to be blacklisted by sending in their visas for renewal.” Mufti Naeem added that around 100-150 students might lose their legal status in the county if their visas are not extended.
“The situation is precarious,” the mufti, a heavyweight figure clad in a traditional white shalwar kameez, said, while squatting in his carpeted office that has no chairs. When asked to provide a break-up of the nationalities of around 500 foreign students studying at Jamia Binoria, the madrassah officials refused to reveal this information, fearing that it may trigger another round of reprisals. But I could see that the majority of foreign students are from the Far East, mainly from Thailand and the Philippines, besides Indonesia and Malaysia. Others are from Uzbekistan and various African countries. There must be some Arab students though I could not spot any, probably because many of the Arab students speak fluent Urdu.
Besides the above mentioned nationalities, insiders say that most foreign students at the madrassah are of Pakistani origin, who come from the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany and France. A majority of these students are from the United States and Britain.
Muna Abanur Mohammed, an American girl in her teens, is among the blacklisted students who have received deportation orders. “Yes, we have received the deportation order but we will not hand her over,” said Mufti Naeem. Naeem termed the government’s move completely illegal and said it reeks of double standards. “They [the Pakistani government] issue visas for the Aga Khan University and other institutions. What is wrong with studying the Quran and learning about Islam?” he asked.
According to a senior interior ministry official, Pakistan’s top security czar Rehman Malik, is going to take up the issue of Muna and other American students studying in Pakistani madrassahs with senior US State Department officials in Washington DC during Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani’s visit to the White House. “Rehman Malik has the file and he is directly supervising the case,” he said. He added that Malik will be back on July 31, after which a crucial decision regarding the recovery of the students will be taken.
But Naeem is not worried about any possible government action. “No one would dare come within a mile’s radius of our compound,” he replied when asked what his response would be if the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) launched a swoop inside the compound. However, despite this implicit threat, Naeem denied that he stockpiled any weapons or ammunition.
Senior immigration officers at the FIA, requesting anonymity, said they had no immediate instructions from the federal authorities to carry out any action against the madrassah in case it flouts the deportation orders for the foreign students.
Meanwhile, a US embassy official in Islamabad says they are closely watching the situation. “We are aware and are monitoring the situation,” says Press Attache Megan Eliss. According to sources, a US embassy official, Michael Chan, was in constant contact with Muna. Madrassah officials stated that they have applied for a Pakistan Origin Card for Muna to avoid her deportation. So, while Muna might avoid deportation once she gets her Pakistani ID card, other students whose education visas are about to expire might face deportation.
A senior official of the Thai Consulate in Karachi told Newsline they were examining the situation. Surprisingly, while requesting anonymity, the Thai official severely criticised the Pakistani government for blacklisting the students through a government notice which is “self-contradictory.” “If you read the government notification, on the one hand they are blacklisting the students and on the other, copying it to another department asking for an extension of visas … the whole thing is a joke,” he said. “In my opinion, the visas should be extended.”