PESHAWAR – The world knows the Taliban as armed fighters who have unleashed a wave of violence in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan including devastating suicide bomb attacks, the most recent on the luxurious Marriot Hotel in high-security Islamabad last week.
But not all Taliban wield guns. In seminaries scattered over the restive, northern parts of Pakistan, students or Taliban a word in Pashto, the language of Pakistan’s Pakhtoons and Afghanistan’s Pashtuns study the Quran and swear by peace.
"Yes. I’m proud to be a Talib. Because being Taliban I am able to study Quran and teach it to others," says 21-year-old Rahimdad from the Darul Uloom Islamia seminary in Khairabad village of Mardan district, 120 kms north of this border city, when asked if he was a Talib (student).
He says he came here from Herat province in Afghanistan a year ago and intends to return when he graduates. "I don’t believe that Taliban are terrorists," he asserts. "We want to spread the message of love and fraternity among the people of the world."
His religious teacher, maulvi Zakirullah, also from Afghanistan’s Kunar province, too denies these students are terrorists. "We are against killing of anyone. We don’t favor killing the Americans. Our aim is to spread the message of love among people of all religions," he tells IPS.
According to Peshawar-based political analyst Khalid Khan, Pakistan’s secretive military intelligence, ISI or Inter Services Intelligence, cobbled together an army by the name of Taliban in 1994, which went on to replace the bitterly-divided and corrupt mujahideen government in Kabul.
Most leaders of the Taliban government were graduates of seminaries in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP). They brought most of Afghanistan under their control. But they were toppled by US-led forces in end-2001 in the wake of the World Trade Center bombings on Sep. 11 that precipitated the so-called "war on terror" launched by US President George W. Bush against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Seven years after, Osama bin Laden is still at large, and a resurgent Taliban has defied both the Pakistan and Afghan government, the latter propped up by 70,000 mainly western troops including US soldiers.
The Taliban in Pakistan’s religious schools say the "terrorist" label is unfortunate. "We don’t understand why the government calls the militants Taliban. Militants are not Taliban, we are," says Shumaila Bibi, 19, who is veiled from head to toe. A student of Ummi Hafsa Darul Uloom, in Nowshera district, NWFP, she says they are taught to love humanity regardless of religion, caste and social status.
Says 17-year-old Nawaz, an Afghan who studies at Kosar seminary near Peshawar: "We condemn the blast in Marriot Hotel. Islam is against killing people. Those who do it will be held accountable on judgement day."
Senator Maulana Samiul Haq is chancellor of Darul Uloom Haqqania, the biggest religious seminary in Pakistan. He says there are 3,500 students in the seminary and "they are peaceful and apolitical. It is incidental that some of the former graduates of my school have held top posts in the Taliban government in Kabul."
Even the NWFP Information Minister, Iftikhar Hussain, backs the students. "The present crisis is not the handiwork of Taliban, but of secret agencies, that present the militants and criminals as Taliban," he tells IPS. "Taliban don’t know guns, they are preoccupied with their studies, and examinations. They are so simple."
Local communities support these students. Meals and clothes are given in charity. They are invited to people’s homes for religious festivities. Wali Shah, a college student in Dir, says: "Taliban play football, cricket and other local games in the evenings. Lots of people turn up to watch!"
According to a 2007 report compiled by the School and Literacy Department, there were 287 religious schools in Dir district with 8,421 students, both from Pakistan and Afghanistan. "We have 700 Taliban, who are studying jurisprudence, Quran and Hadith. They attend classes in the morning and then go back to different mosques where they reside," says Maulana Mohammad Shakoor.
The number of religious schools countrywide has risen from 245 in 1947 to 6,741 in 2007. The province of Punjab accounts for 3,153 seminaries; NWFP 1,281, Sindh 905, Balochistan 692, Azad Kashmir 151, Islamabad 94, Northern Areas 185 and FATA 300.
The same report says only 22 percent of the schools were registered with the government. The NWFP has 3,795 male and 885 female teachers in 1,281 religious schools, 30 percent of whom are Afghans.
"Taliban are entirely apolitical. They neither listen to news nor read newspapers," says Amjad Iqbal of Village Development Foundation, a non-governmental organization in Bannu district. He says the Taliban also give religious lessons to local children in the mosques for which they are paid a nominal amount.
Saira Bibi, a school teacher in Swabi district, which has 253 religious schools, tells IPS Taliban are highly respected by the local population. "We give free food, clothes, shoes and cash amounts to seek the blessings of Allah. Taliban are the messengers of Islam. They are the harbingers of peace," she explains.