The AfPak Madrassa Threat: What Are We to Believe?

Islamic religious schools, or “madrassas,” have garnered special attention in recent years because they have proliferated rapidly and are thought to be the cultivators of Islamic religious extremists responsible for terrorist attacks.  Steve Coll writes in Ghost Wars that “in 1971 there had been only 900 madrassas in Pakistan, by the summer of 1988 there were about 8,000 official religious schools and an estimated 25,000 unregistered ones.”  Others, such as P.W. Singer, have suggested that there may be as many as 45,000 madrassas in the region.

Madrassas have also provoked concern in the West because of the narrative being told here.  The narrative begins in the 1980’s when the military commander turned President of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-huq, gave madrassas money and land.  This support was given in concert with anti-Soviet US aid money and Saudi support that together provided the foundation for the force that eventually vanquished the USSR from Afghanistan.  According to the narrative, the Mujahedeen continued to use the madrassas after the Soviets departed.  Then, the narrative suggests, madrassas became the best alternative for poor families with limited options.  Out of desperation, the story goes, the sons of poor families attend madrassas where they are turned into religious fighters and Islamic extremists.  From this point of view, the logical method of fighting extremism is to counter the proliferation of Madrassas by offering scholastic alternatives.

Greg Mortenson, a mountain climber turned activist, and the author of the best selling book Three Cups of Tea, has done just that.  He founded the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which has built nearly 150 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Mortenson builds schools in the most difficult to reach regions of the two countries – his goal is to illustrate that if an NGO such as the CAI can build schools in the hard to reach parts of AfPak, then others should be able to build them everywhere else.

Mortenson also specifically strives to educate girls and young women (girls still only make up just 30% of the total student population in Pakistan).  He quotes the African proverb: “If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community.” This is critical to battling extremism because, according to Mortenson, “a person who has been manipulated into believing in extremist violence or terrorism often seeks the permission of his mother before he may join a militant jihad – and educated women, as a rule, tend to withhold their blessing for such things.”  Mortenson’s assertion is that education will act as a counter to the growth of extreme Islamic militancy.

The western narrative that leads to this conclusion, however, is somewhat skewed.  To begin with, there may not be as much difference between public school students and madrassa students as it indicates.  According to Christine Fair (formerly of the Rand Corporation) a survey of 141 martyrs (based on posthumous family interviews) indicates that the only thing truly remarkable about the profile of extremists is that they generally have more money and more education than average citizens of the region.  And, according to the survey, only 4% of the martyrs referred to in the survey had attended a madrassa as a full time student.  This suggests that some families who enroll their children in madrassas have other options – and that extremists find their way to militancy by way of various paths.

Additionally, consider the survey conducted by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey in 2005.  Of the 75 terrorists they interviewed, a majority of them were college educated, and only 9 had attended a madrassa.  Bergen and Pandey also found that madrassa students lacked sophistication:

While madrassas may breed fundamentalists who have learned to recite the Koran in Arabic by rote, such schools do not teach the technical or linguistic skills necessary to be an effective terrorist.  There is little or no evidence that madrassas produce terrorists capable of attacking the West.

This lack of sophistication doesn’t mean that madrassas produce extremists incapable of participating in local or regional fighting, and madrassas promote militancy in other ways – recruiting, for example – but it does indicate that providing alternatives to religious schools as a means to reduce extremism should be just one tactic in a larger strategy.  It cannot become the focus of our effort – as Nicholas Kristof suggests – at the expense of a well-rounded approach.  Rather, it must be just one part of how we make terrorism unprofitable and unattractive.  It would be easy – too easy – if the way to defeat Islamic extremism were simply to build secular schools faster than the enemy could build madrassas.  As we have found in the wars of the last decade time and again – our foe is crafty and complex, and we must attempt to understand him without presumption.  It is only when we shed our own logic and expectation – and see the fight through his eyes – that we will find successful solutions.

Finally, despite what I’ve written here, I believe that Greg Mortenson’s work remains vital. If we truly believe that success in Pakistan and Afghanistan is critical to our national security, then we must recognize that madrassas are not a singular villainous threat, nor are they benign or insignificant.  At a minimum they contribute to the narrow worldview that permits and perpetuates extremism.  Extremists can only thrive in a society that lacks the organization, resources and the will to oppose them.  Raising the general level of education in the AfPak region won’t happen overnight; certainly not by the stated US draw down date of July 2011.  But if we have, as I have suggested above, shed our logic and expectation to see the fight through our enemy’s eyes – we will recognize that societal education is critical to many other facets of our effort; state building, institutional capacity, fighting corruption – and that it is these efforts and not our specific tactical victories that will, eventually, bring about the national security we seek.

Photo by phil_p

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