On 6 July 2008, a US air raid killed about 52 civilians, mostly women and children, in eastern Afghanistan. A BBC correspondent reported that those killed and wounded in the raid were crossing a narrow pass in the mountains to participate in a wedding. Suddenly a military jet flew low and dropped a deadly bomb on top of the pass. This was followed a few minutes later by two more bombs, killing many children and women whose bodies were blown to pieces. Although the US forces claimed that the raid was targeted at insurgents, no militants were found among the dead and the wounded. Such incidents are becoming increasingly frequent.
The Taliban fighters, who have been lying low for some time, are now regrouping and have intensified attacks on the coalition forces. Suicide bombings in 2007 increased by 27 per cent over the previous year and up 60 per cent in comparison with 2005. Taliban attacks increased fourfold during the same period.
The escalating violence has forced millions of Afghans to leave their homes and take shelter in Pakistan and Iran. Since 2002, the UN-backed repatriation programme has helped more than 3,725,000 people return from Pakistan and Iran. Thousands of people have been displaced within the country.
International aid agencies have donated billions of dollars for reconstruction and for providing basic amenities to people. In June 2008, a consortium of 80 countries pledged a further $22 billion for Afghanistan. Unfortunately, much of the aid package has gone to waste. A substantial part of the aid is spent on salaries to Western consultants. A World Bank survey says that "there is little to show for the estimated $1.6 billion that has been spent on technical assistance since 2002".
There is rampant corruption in the country in which large numbers of provincial governors, ministers, officers, judges and police are involved. Despite massive foreign aid, basic services such as clean drinking water, electricity and sewage systems remain unavailable to most people, even in the capital Kabul. More than 40 per cent of people in the country are without employment. There is drought in some regions. To make matters worse, food prices have sharply risen in recent months. The poor have to often take loans which they cannot repay. Afghanistan remains the world's fourth poorest country.
There is a flourishing narcotics trade in Afghanistan. The country accounts for nearly 90% of the world's heroin. From Shaddle Bazaar and other markets, where thousands of kilos of opium are openly bought and sold, opium is taken to heroin labs in the border areas set up by local drug lords, where it is processed into heroin and smuggled into Europe and the US. Drug trafficking is controlled by powerful warlords, many of whom enjoy protection from the government. The thriving drug trade is a great source of financial support for the Taliban as well as for many people in the government.
Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has substantially increased in recent years. The government claims that poor farmers who are faced with poverty and destitution have no alternative but to take to poppy cultivation. But this appears to be an eyewash. A UN report has pointed out that approximately 80 per cent of the land under poppy cultivation in the south of the country has been planted with poppy only in the last two years. An increasing number of farmers have abandoned the cultivation of traditional crops (such as wheat, cotton and vegetables) and shifted to the more lucrative poppy cultivation. The report points out that poppy cultivation is decreasing in the poorest areas and increasing in the wealthier areas. This shows that poverty is not the main driving factor in the expansion of poppy cultivation in recent years. The incidence of drug abuse in the country is on the rise.
The ostensible goal of the US-led coalition forces is to restore democracy, peace and stability in Afghanistan. The outcome of this seven-year pursuit is evident failure.
Muslims in Russia
Russia has more Muslims than any other European country (except Turkey). According to the 2002 census, Russia's Muslim population is 14.5 million, constituting about 10 per cent of the Russian Federation's total population of 145 million. In 2005, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, put the number of Muslims in Russia at 20 million. Nearly 2 million Muslims live in Moscow. Tatarstan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia have large concentration of Muslims.
The Siberian Muslims are among Russia's oldest surviving Muslim communities. According to local legend, Islam reached western Siberia in the 14th century. There are three large and distinct ethnic groups in the region: Siberian Tartars (80,000), Western Siberian Kazakhs (160,000) and the Volga-Ural Tartars (60,000). Every Tartar and Kazakh settlement has a mosque and a religious functionary.
Since the conquest of Tatarstan's capital Kazan by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, the city's Kremlin houses a mosque with towering minarets, situated next to an Orthodox Christian church.
Dagestan is situated in the northern Caucasus region and is surrounded by Chechnya and Georgia in the west, Azerbaijan in the south and the Caspian Sea in the east. Dagestan is rich in oil and gas reserves, but the people of Dagestan are among the poorest in the Russian Federation.
Dagestan is the birth place of Imam Shamil, the legendary fighter who led a prolonged and relentless armed resistance against Russian imperialism. In the 1920s Dagestan became an autonomous Soviet republic within the Russian Federation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 it has remained a part of the Russian Federation.
In 1999, an Islamic group declared the establishment of an independent Islamic state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya and called on all Muslims in the Russian-held territories to rise in revolt against Russian domination. Chechen fighters moved into Dagestan and joined hands with the group. Vladimir Putin, who was now Russia's prime minister, dealt with the uprising in a ruthless manner. Since then the Russian forces have carried out a brutal campaign of terror and repression in the region. The pro-independence fighters have put up a strong resistance against Russian onslaught. There has been a spate of bombings targeted at Russian forces. In February 2006 Putin nominated the pro-Russian Mukhu Aliyev as president of Dagestan. The region continues to be dogged by violence, political instability and lawlessness.
The southern Russian republic of Chechnya is surrounded by Russian territory but shares a border with Georgia. Like Dagestan, Chechnya has rich oil reserves. The capital Grozny is a major oil centre with pipelines to the Caspian and Black seas. In the 19th century, Imam Shamil and his fighters kept the Russian forces at bay for nearly 25 years. Russians finally overcame the resistance in 1859. Following World War II, Stalin ordered the deportation of thousands of Chechen Muslims, who were suspected of collaborating with Nazi Germany during the war, to Siberia and Central Asia. Many of them were allowed to return in 1957 during the presidency of Khrushchev.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former senior officer in the Soviet air force, declared Chechnya's independence from Russia. In 1992-93 Russia sent its forces to quell the rebellion but with little success. Russian forces suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Chechen fighters in 1994. The fierce fighting in Chechnya continued till 1996, which left nearly 80,000 people dead. Russian forces were withdrawn under a 1996 peace agreement, under which Chechnya was granted substantial autonomy, but not full independence. Fighting erupted again in 1999 and Russian planes and missiles relentlessly bombarded Grozny. The city was devastated and laid to waste.
On 31 December 1999, Putin, who was now president, flew to Chechnya, which was under fierce bombardment from the Russian forces, and famously said, "we'll wipe them out in the shithouse". Following the sack of Grozny, Putin made a deal with a former rebel leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, and appointed him president. When Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004, his son Ramzan, who pledges loyalty to Russia, was nominated president. Corruption, lawlessness and unemployment-nearly 80%--are widespread in Chechnya. With 40,000 Russian troops who are deployed in the republic, Chechnya appears like a war zone.
The republic of Ingushetia, which has a fairly large concentration of Muslims, has been relatively peaceful until recent times. Unlike Chechnya and Dagestan, it never demanded independence nor supported the Chechen fighters. But the reign of terror let loose by the Russian authorities have disturbed the peace in the republic. Ingushetia now has a network of guerrilla fighters. In 2007 they killed several Russians. Last year, when people held a protest rally against the killing of a six-year old Ingush boy by Russian forces, they were mercilessly thrashed. Foreign journalists who tried to cover the story were beaten up and imprisoned.
The large majority of Muslims in Russia continue to live in an atmosphere of fear and repression. The only difference is that the tyranny of the Soviet era has been replaced by that of the Russian Federation. Significantly, the Muslim-dominated republics of the Russian Federation have witnessed an Islamic revival in recent years. This is reflected in the construction of new mosques and Islamic schools and in the increasing popularity of Islamic literature. A quarter century ago Tatarstan's capital Kazan had some 20 mosques. Now there are around 1,300. In 2000 Russia's first Islamic university was opened in Kazan.
Islamic schools in South Africa
In South Africa, the constitution of the erstwhile apartheid regime declared South Africa as a Christian country. The new, post-apartheid constitution of the country asserts that South Africa is a country of four religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Furthermore, the constitution explicitly states that all the four religions are placed on an equal footing. The constitution recognises the Islamic personal law, including local Islamic courts. Muslims in South Africa-who constitute less than two per cent of the population--are a highly visible community, especially in the urban areas. They are well represented in the government and in public institutions as well as in professions such as medicine, law and accountancy.
Islamic schools have played a highly important role in inculcating Islamic values in the younger generation and in safeguarding the religious and cultural identity of Muslims in South Africa. Muslim Mission Schools, which were modelled after Christian mission schools, were established in South Africa's Cape Province in 1913. These schools combined modern, secular education with Islamic teachings. With the advent of the apartheid regime in 1948, these schools were either closed down or were incorporated into the new education system introduced by the government. Muslims had no choice but to send their children to public schools but, at the same time, they continued to send their children to Islamic madrasas attached to local mosques.
In the 1980s, when the resistance movement against the apartheid regime began to gather momentum and public schools in the country virtually collapsed, Muslims began to voice the need for starting Islamic schools. They felt that the dual system of education prevalent in the country-attending public schools in the morning and madrasas in the afternoon-was likely to produce confusion and ambivalence in children. They felt the need for introducing an integrated system of education which would combine modern, secular instruction with Islamic teachings. Thus a movement for setting up Islamic schools began in the country.
At present, three types of Islamic educational institutions exist in South Africa. On the one hand, there are the traditional madrasas, which are located at either private homes or are attached to local mosques and which impart only religious instruction. The instruction includes learning how to read the Quran, preliminary lessons in Arabic and basic Islamic prayers and rituals. The majority of Muslims in the country are enrolled in public schools and attend the madrasas in the afternoon. An advanced type of madrasa is known as Darul Uloom, where pupils are trained to become teachers in madrasas and religious functionaries.
A third type of Islamic institution is represented by modern Islamic schools which combine modern, secular education with Islamic teachings in an Islamic environment.
Today, there are about seventy five such schools in the country, which are located in urban areas in the provinces of Western Cape, Natal and Gauteng, where more than 80 per cent of the country's Muslim population lives. These Islamic schools, which are accredited by the Department of Education, follow the national educational curriculum and supplement it with Islamic instruction. Like all other private schools, Islamic schools get minimal financial support from the government and are largely dependent on private donations and school fees.
Many Islamic schools maintain good standards and charge high fees and are therefore considered elite institutions. These schools enjoy high popularity among Muslims because they provide modern education along with an exposure to Islamic values and teachings in an Islamic environment. The school uniform requires girls to wear a headscarf and boys and girls are segregated in classrooms.
One well-established Islamic school in Cape Town is Islamia College, founded by Muslims of Indian origin in 1984. Today the school has over 1,000 pupils and 80 teachers and is considered one the best schools in the city. It has a primary school and two high schools (one for boys and the other for girls) and a mosque in its premises. In addition to the national curriculum, it offers courses on Islamic studies and Arabic.