Madrasas catch the cricket bug

April 13, 2008

Pakistani students recite the Koran in an Islamic school in PeshawarA crack has opened in the cast-iron rules surrounding Pakistan’s madrasas, and cricket, South Asia’s favourite sport, has rushed in.

Students from 24 religious schools in Islamabad, including the hardline Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), have been taking part in the past week in a cricket tournament organised by the city authorities as part of measures to regulate and revamp the schools. The students swapped their shalwar kameez for track pants and T-shirts, and sticks for cricket bats.

By all accounts, the games have been successful as enthusiastic crowds of skull-capped and turbaned students thronged the grounds to watch their schoolmates play with teams drawn from other schools, some of them from different sects who have often clashed in the past.

One blogger wrote that the games were a ray of light during a week clouded by a resurgence in political violence. Women students also took a break from their rigid, dawn-to-dusk schedules to take part in a badminton tournament held alongside the cricket contest.

Change was coming to the madrasas, but it would take a lot of doing before the schools shed their image as breeding grounds of extremism, Pakistani blogs and newspapers said. Indeed, some students from the Red Mosque said they had come to the tournament against the wishes of their teachers who said it was “unIslamic” because it was being covered by television channels.

Others said it was not cricket but a conspiracy against the seminaries.People wash their hands and feet before prayers at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid or Red Mosque

The Lal Masjid, in the heart of Islamabad, was the scene of a bloody battle last year when troops stormed the mosque to put down a Taliban-style student movement, triggering in turn a wave of suicide bombings and blasts throughout the country culminating in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The assault on the mosque after a long siege was widely seen as the turning point in the war against militancy. The mosque has since opened and Islamabad officials, prodded by a new civilian government, are hoping to introduce maths, science and computer studies in the madrasas in the capital after the cricket success.

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