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Saturday, 13 October, 2001, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Afghanistan's scholarly soldiers
Anti-American supporters in Islamabad, Pakistan
Air strikes have increased anti-American sentiment
By the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones

The Taleban movement has been the focus of international news since the terrorist attacks in America, but many people are unsure as to what lies behind their motivation and beliefs.

The Taleban, which now rules most of Afghanistan, originated in neighbouring Pakistan.

Taleban supporters stamp on an American flag in Peshawar
Many see the West as a source of decadence and corruption
In the mid-1990s, when Mullah Mohammed Omar organised some of these young militants into a movement, he was able to sweep through Afghanistan and assume power.

For more than a decade now, the religious schools or Madrassahs in Pakistan have been producing thousands of such young men filled with Islamic ideals.

The Madrassahs still exist and each year more religious students or Talibs are educated in them.

Dedicated lives

Mujahid Ali is 25 years old and a very serious man. With a long black beard and slightly vacant eyes, he says he has dedicated his life to Allah.

He means it. He has no worldly goods save a pair of sandals, one shirt with matching trousers and a hat. He has no income - his Madrassah, or religious school, provides him with food and a bed to sleep on.

He would like to go to Afghanistan to fight the Americans. In fact, he was thinking of asking his father if he could borrow his Kalashnikov.

His daily routine is austere. He gets up at 4.30 am, says prayers and then reads the Koran. Or rather he rereads it. By the age of 16 he had learnt the entire book off by heart.

He then says some prayers again before settling down to a few hours study of Islamic jurisprudence.

Then it is lunch, a sleep, more prayers and more reading before going to bed in a dormitory that he shares with ten other Talibs.

Mujahid Ali has been living like this since he was 14 and he plans to continue studying until he is 30 or 31.

He thinks he might then become a teacher in the Madrassah, but he is reluctant to discuss the future - after all, he says it is up to God to decide what he should do.

Last year, Mujahid Ali's parents found him a wife - a potential distraction.

But Mujahid has worked out a solution. He sees her just once a week. Each Saturday, he leaves the Madrassah and goes to stay with his wife for the night.

A Taleban supporter in the Pakistani border town of Chaman
Pakistan's military ruler says the Taleban are narrow-minded
He says she doesn't mind that he is at home so seldom - in fact she is proud that she has married such a scholarly man.

Osama Bin Laden once said that all Muslims have a religious duty to kill any American taxpayer. I asked Mujahid Ali if he agreed with this.

Yes, he said, he would like to go to Afghanistan to fight the Americans. In fact, he was thinking of asking his father if he could borrow his Kalashnikov.

As for the World Trade Center bombing - he believes that was a Jewish plot. Why else, he reasons, were so many cameras filming the building at the time.

As you might expect, Mujahid Ali is a strong supporter of the Taleban movement in Afghanistan. He says their restrictions on women are quite good - women should not work - they should stay at home and look after the children.

He also agrees with the bans on drink, music, dancing, kite flying and wearing a tie. A tie, he says, resembles Christian cross and therefore is un-Islamic.

Fighting Western corruption

Mujahid has left his home city of Peshawar just once - to go on a month-long religious study tour in Karachi.

Would he ever like to go outside Pakistan? Well yes, he says, he would. Once the Americans have been defeated in Afghanistan, he would like to go to the US to help make it an Islamic country.

And what if the Americans do not want to become Muslims? Well, Islam is universal and overcomes all other religions.

Besides, he argues that the West is decadent and corrupt. Westerners are so inhuman than they put their elderly relatives in old peoples homes.

It would not be difficult to convince the American people that Islam offers them much cleaner, purer and more compassionate values.

Pakistan's military ruler General Musharraf has said he is concerned that some of the Madrassahs or religious schools are turning out people who have a narrow, limited view of the world.

He has little sympathy for Talibs like Mujahid Ali - seeing them as a threat to Pakistani stability and an obstacle to the country's modernisation.

But out in the villages of rural Pakistan millions of illiterate farmers have a very different perspective.

They view Talibs like Mujahid Ali as devout and learned scholars who should be respected. And that is the problem. Pakistan leaders may be cosmopolitan and sophisticated, but many of the electorate are living in a completely different world.

Mujahid Ali's faith is deep. I have little doubt that he is being genuine when he says he would welcome death because it would speed his progress to heaven.

And there are many more like him. It is reckoned that between 600,000 and 700,000 people are currently studying in Pakistan's Madrassahs.

The Americans may be able to topple the Taleban leader Mohammed Mullah Omar but, in one form or another, the Talibs will surely remain a force to be reckoned with.

See also:

12 Oct 01 | South Asia
Fear and defiance inside Afghanistan
12 Oct 01 | South Asia
Omar: 'Victory or death'
11 Jan 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees' unending plight
10 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's fault lines
11 Oct 01 | Americas
Islam 'hijacked' by terror
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