Madrassah reform is key to terror war

In recent weeks, some experts have challenged the conventional wisdom about the flagship of Islamic education in Pakistan - madrassahs, those schools where members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban once trained, and which have been called jihad factories, schools of hate, and breeding grounds for terror.

The revised assessments cite new information like the recent World Bank report, which offers compelling statistical proof that since the 9/11 attacks, Pakistani madrassahs have been reported to account for anywhere from 1 to 33 percent of all school enrollments.

Some commentaries in leading publications have made similar arguments about the influence of these schools, suggesting they don't produce terrorists capable of attacking the West.

To be sure, these scholars are correct in pointing out that official statistics are sparse, reports clash, and Islamic education is not monolithic.

But a total denial of the madrassah problem is equally misguided. The madrassah effect is real and visible.

For good reason, Muslim schools in many countries have come to represent much that is wrong with Islam today. Such schools, in Pakistan for example, have produced terrorists in the past; many across the Muslim world currently promote religious intolerance and encourage sectarian violence; and there is ample reason to fear that, in the long run, the fundamentalism emanating from madrassahs in Pakistan and similar Islamic schools elsewhere will eventually threaten Western interests in the region.

The United States, of all nations, cannot shirk responsibility for the madrassah quandary. Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority Gulf nations bankrolled militant madrassahs in Pakistan to counteract the growing presence of Shiite fundamentalism in the region. And later that year, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted the Pakistani government - funded primarily by the US and Saudi Arabia - to erect a number of radical madrassahs along the Afghan border to repel the "godless communists."

These schools housed and educated millions of displaced refugees, while supplying the Afghan resistance with a steady stream of mujahideen - many of whom would later become leaders in the Taliban.

But US accountability does not end there: From 1986 to 1992, the University of Nebraska (with funding from the US Agency for International Development) produced a series of primary school textbooks that indoctrinated young Muslims in the importance of jihad.

Among the fourth-grade math lessons was this: "The speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 meters per second.... If a Russian is at a distance of 3,200 meters from a mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian's head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead."

Madrassahs in Pakistan totaled a few hundred in 1947; by the end of the Afghan War in 1989, there were several thousand.

It may be true that most madrassahs do not mass-produce international terrorists intent on attacking the US. But closer examination of countries like Pakistan reveals that the madrassah phenomenon has been problematic in other ways.

Recent research funded by the United States Institute of Peace found a strong correlation between madrassah proliferation and sectarian violence in certain areas of Pakistan - particularly in Ahmedpur East, a district in the southern part of the province of Punjab.

Most madrassahs in Ahmedpur are operated by Deobandi Muslims, a Sunni sect that holds extremely intolerant views of other Muslims. In areas of Ahmedpur where Deobandi and Shiite madrassahs flourish, sectarian violence runs especially high.

The research also found that Deobandi madrassahs appear to radicalize surrounding non-Deobandi madrassahs: only in areas with a heavy Deobandi presence do non-Deobandi madrassahs encourage sectarian violence.

Though the problem in Ahmedpur is most immediately a local one, this trend has already spread to other regions of the globe. Just last month, police in Indonesia found caches of weapons in an Islamic school outside Ambon City on the Maluku Islands, where sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians killed 5,000 people between 1999 and 2002.

Islamic schools commit no actual crime by teaching only the Koran and Islamic law. After all, every religion has its version of faith-based schooling.

But it is easy to see how the madrassah effect can have international reach - even aside from the outdated school curricula offered by almost all madrassahs, which in itself should underline concerns that these schools are at the very least graduating thousands of students unemployable outside the religious sector and hard-pressed to function in a globalized economy.

Since joining the US-led war on terror, the Pakistani government has repeatedly vowed to stamp out religious intolerance and Islamist extremism by eradicating hate literature and incorporating the national academic curriculum into the Islamic schools.

But these efforts have been met with resistance all around. Madrassah administrators insist that the function of Islamic schools is to train future clerics, not modern professionals. Some policymakers assert that the national curriculum is no more tolerant or modern than what is already taught by the madrassahs. Skeptics have also questioned President Musharraf's commitment to madrassah reform, suggesting he has little incentive to alienate a seemingly large part of his political base.

It is plain wrong to suggest that failing education systems in Muslim countries do not constitute a long-term threat to the West, or that the West does not have an obligation to help fix them.

Madrassahs are not a terrorism problem, per se. And as part of a vital tradition in Islam, many of them deserve our respect. But without reform, madrassahs at best will continue to produce generations of graduates ill-suited to function in modern society and intolerant of other religious sects. At worst, those graduates will become international terrorists.

Regardless, the consequences are most certainly severe - for the Muslim world especially, but for the global community as well.

US financial commitment to Pakistan's education-reform efforts indicates how important these initiatives are to American interests. They should be applauded as necessary efforts in combating Islamic extremism, the real focus of the war on terror.

Abigail Cutler is a reporter/researcher for The Atlantic Monthly. Saleem Ali teaches at the University of Vermont and is a research scholar at Brown University. He is the author of a forthcoming US Institute of Peace study on Pakistan's madrassahs.

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