“We are no longer to be called ‘the University of jihad’ but ‘the University of the Taliban cabinet,” chuckles the head of Darul Uloom Haqqania, arguably one of the most infamous Islamic seminaries in Pakistan.
Flanked by adoring supporters, one of whom crouches on the floor kissing his legs, Maulana Hamid Ul-Haq jokes about the nickname given by critics who have repeatedly labelled the school a hotbed of radicalisation. This is because its alumni include some of the Taliban’s most powerful and feared leaders, many of whom are on global wanted lists and are now in their new cabinet after the group swept to power in neighbouring Afghanistan last month.
Among those with close links to the school, located about 100km from the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan, was the Taliban’s founder Mullah Muhammed Omar, the one-eyed reclusive cleric-warrior who sheltered Osama bin Laden. The seminary awarded him an honorary doctorate because he brought “peace to Afghanistan and the region” Ul-Haq says.
The biggest names from the notorious Haqqani network, a US-designated terrorist group linked to the Taliban, have been taught there, including its founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Khalil Haqqani, now the Taliban’s minister for refugees. The Taliban’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid is also a graduate.
But despite this, Ul-Haq, 54, vehemently rejects the accusations that the school is a factory for violence. The former member of parliament, who now heads up a religious political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-S), remains deeply proud of the Taliban connections and waxes lyrical about his meetings with Jalahuddin and his son Sirajuddin, the Taliban’s new interior minister (and a wanted militant), whom he calls “humble”, “well-mannered”, and “visionary”.
He sees the Taliban’s surge to power in Afghanistan, and the announcement of their interim cabinet, as legitimising their position even more, and calls on the west to recognise them in order to “prevent more war”.
“We don’t want to be known as the terror or warrior university. We are proud that a number of our alumni are in the Taliban cabinet,” says Ul-Haq, estimating that more than half a dozen Taliban ministers either attended the madrasa or have sent family members there.
“That means the Taliban think that these people are visionary, humane and well educated.
“They were chosen as they know the political ups and downs, they know how to deal with the world,” he adds, beaming.
The day Ul-Haq speaks to The Independent happens to be the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, masterminded by Osama bin Laden, which triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, where Bin Laden was sheltering.
Ul-Haq condemns the horrific attacks, which killed over 2700 people in the States, but claims Osama bin Laden was not responsible for them, saying the US invasion forced the Taliban “to defend themselves”.
And so, he says, the fact that the 20th anniversary of the attacks occurred when Afghanistan was back in the hands of the Taliban, after US-led Nato troops had withdrawn, was “a kind of justice”.
“America did not come to spread love and did not give flowers. They came to bomb the region, and these men – the Taliban – were defending themselves,” he adds with force.
“Washington has made the right decision in leaving. It was spending so much money, but suffered a lot – economically, politically, and in terms of loss of life of its forces.”
The world-infamous madrasa, which teaches a fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam known as Deobandi Islam, was founded by Hamid Ul-Haq’s grandfather – an Islamic scholar called Abdul Ul-Haq – in the weeks after Pakistan won independence from the British in 1947.
Abdul Ul-Haq’s successor was his son, Sami Ul-Haq, who was known as “the father of the Taliban” – a name the family still sees as a badge of honour. Sami was assassinated by unknown gunmen in 2018.
Now, twinkling in the sunlight, the new, pink-hued, sprawling campus is home to some 2800 students, the student body now being about half the size it was at its largest.
Behind a gate manned by guards armed with Kalashnikovs, streams of men in traditional Islamic dress, with prayer rugs slung over their shoulders, pour out of…