Religious schools under scrutiny in Yemen

Religious schools under scrutiny in Yemen
# 04 March 2010 04:58 (UTC +04:00)
Baku – APA. Malaysian student Mohamed Fatri Ben Kazrah flew half way round the world to fulfill his dream of studying Islam and Arabic at a Yemeni religious school, APA reports quoting “Reuters”.
Ben Kazrah is one of hundreds of students from Asia and Africa in Tarim, a historic town acknowledged as the theological center of Hadramaut, a poverty-stricken region where government authority is weak, tribes are in control and al Qaeda is active.
The remote area is also the ancestral home of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, whose father was born in a valley not far away from Tarim before moving to Yemen’s neighbor Saudi Arabia.
"It’s so great to be here. I really enjoy myself," said Bin Kazrah who hopes to join his father’s religious school at home after graduation. "If you want to practice a language you need to be in a native environment."
Tarim has long been a teaching center also for Sufism, a mystical strand in Islam, but all Islamic schools have come under scrutiny since al Qaeda in Yemen said it was behind a failed attack on a U.S.-bound jet on December 25.
The accused Nigerian plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabis, is believed to have embraced his militant views in Yemen where he had come to study Arabic.
Sitting around teachers on the floor in the tradition Sufi "halaqa" (study group), students listen after evening prayers to subjects such as Islamic law, values and Arabic grammar.
"Schools in Hadramaut...apply only a moderate version of Islamic law and reject extremism," said Abdullah Mohamed Bin Shihab, a professor for education at a local state university.
Big religious schools in Hadramaut cooperate with the government in teaching moderate Islam, analysts say, but there are Salafi schools promoting Riyadh’s austere version of Sunni Islam which are thought to be breeding grounds for extremism.
"They are the problem. They are more difficult to supervise," said analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani.
He said there were several such radical Arabic schools and religious institutes across Yemen such as Sanaa’s Iman University which had a branch in Mukalla, Hadramaut’s capital.
LITTLE TRANSPARENCY
Yemen has declared war on al Qaeda but diplomats say there is little transparency in funding religious schools as the country, where nearly half the population live on less $2 a day, is in dire need of help. Officials do not ask many questions.
Sanaa has toughened up visa procedures after the plane attack but Arab nationals such as Egyptians or Jordanians can still enter the country with just a passport.
"Students get vetted by state security before they come," said Abdul-Qader Mohamed al-Shatri, principal of Rebat Tarim school, one of the most established institutes in Hadramaut.
"They fund their stay, pay for tickets, everything."
Attracting foreign students of Islam is an important factor for the local economy in Hadramaut after tourism collapsed following a wave of al Qaeda attacks over the past few years.
Since schools such as Rebat Tarim require knowledge of Arabic prior to arrival, many students hook up with Islamic charities at home whose funding and motives are difficult to verify.
Diplomats say some charities fund entire schools, others give scholarships for students. Some schools are funded by wealthy individuals, said Iryani, the Yemeni analyst.
Yemen’s biggest donor is Saudi Arabia, which also bankrolls the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, though both sides decline to say by how much.
Assessing Saudi aid is difficult because the oil-rich kingdom favors channeling funds outside international organizations such as the World Bank.
Instead Saudi Arabia pays tribes in northern Yemen to improve border security or builds mosques, often the only new buildings in streets across a country that sits strategically on the southwestern rim of the Arabian peninsula.
Saudi Arabia cracked down on funding charities after al Qaeda staged attacks in the kingdom from 2003-2006 but loopholes remain, the U.S. government said in a report in September.
"U.S. officials remain concerned about the ability of Saudi individuals and charitable organizations to support terrorism outside Saudi Arabia," said the report by U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), citing limited Saudi law enforcement resources and widespread use of cash by extremists.
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