Following the September 11 attacks and, more recently, the terrorist bombing in Madrid, discussion of terrorism and its root causes has been abundant. Many observers have pointed to Islamic religious schools abroad, known as “madrasas,” as playing a significant role in the education of terrorists.
Although the U.S. government has recognized this problem, said Andrew Coulson, a senior education fellow at the Mackinac Center, its solutions have been less than effective. Typically they take one of two forms: first, using financial or other means to entice madrasas to modernize their curricula; and second, encouraging attendance at government-run schools in Muslim countries. Coulson spoke at a recent meeting here in Washington, D.C.
The problem with the former method, Coulson said, is that there is no link between the modernity of a curriculum’s subject matter and its ideology. He recalled the words of one nine-year-old madrasa student, who, when asked whether he would like to learn mathematics, replied in the affirmative, saying that “there are many references to how many times Allah has multiplied the reward of jihad. If I knew how to multiply, I would be able to calculate the reward I will earn in the hereafter.”
At a forum held March 23 at the Cato Institute, several experts discussed the degree to which Islamic education may fuel terrorism, and what can be done to prevent Muslim youth from becoming the next generation’s Attas and Bin Ladens.
Bill Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and senior education advisor to Administrator L. Paul Bremer, discussed the school system in Iraq. In the early years of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime, Iraqi schools were aggressively nationalized and secularized, and students were steeped in pan-Arabist ideology. Later, in the 1980s and 90s, the educational system became more deferential to Islam.
Even after the fall of the regime last year, education policy has been highly centralized, Evers said, and under proposed rules, all private schools must be licensed and regulated by the education ministry.
Coulson said that capturing and killing terrorists will be of little benefit if their ranks are replenished by young Muslims steeped in terrorist ideology at certain extremist madrasas. Although these schools do not train students in terrorism per se, Coulson stated, “what the radical Islamic madrasas do is to arm their students with an ideology … that promotes hate and violence.”
The solution of beefing up government schools, moreover, rests on the assumption that they are more “tolerant” than their sectarian counterparts, Coulson stated. He argued that government schools in Muslim countries frequently distort history to glorify the regime in power and sometimes promote jihad just as strongly as radical madrasas.
Perhaps the primary reason Muslim parents send their children to madrasas—many of which provide crucial social services other than education—is the fact that they generally charge no tuition, Coulson said. Government schools, on the other hand, generally charge modest fees but have poorer facilities than their religious counterparts, thanks to the subsidies the latter receive from mosques.
The best way to steer students away from militant Islam, Coulson argued, is to invest in academically oriented private schools. Many of these tuition-based schools already exist in Muslim countries, he said. In Pakistan, they account for almost a third of all schools, according to Coulson. The fact that parents pay tuition at these schools leads to a much greater degree of parental involvement than at government schools, Coulson claimed.
Encouraging more of these private schools, he said, would help to jump-start a “virtuous cycle” of economic and educational growth: As increased education facilitates the development of technology and commerce, a more developed economy increases the demand for education. Coulson added that both the educational and economic systems in Muslim nations would benefit from the abolition of international trade barriers.
Omer Taspinar, a Brookings Institution scholar and professor at Johns Hopkins University, discussed Turkish education and religion. Turkey, he said, is in some ways a “model for the Muslim world” and in others a “problematic secular country.” Under the doctrine of “Kemalism,” the mosque is not simply separate from the state, but rather the state controls the mosque. The Turkish government considers Islamic education such a threat, Taspinar said, that it has forcefully attempted to control private education (madrasas were banned in the 1930s, for example).
Taspinar argued that education reform in the Middle East will require the development of a strong middle class—a demographic that was bolstered in Turkey by the economic privatization of the 1980s. Without economic growth and job creation, Taspinar argued, education reform will prove fruitless.
Ambassador Husain Haqqani, who himself attended a madrasa as a boy in Pakistan, gave a brief overview of the history of Muslim education. Islam possessed no formal system of education until the 11th century, when the madrasa was instituted. By that time the Muslim empire had expanded to such an extent that a structured educational system was needed to administer the empire and instill unity among Muslims.
Largely for political reasons, madrasas spread rapidly in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, stated Haqqani. Their continued popularity today is due in large part to the fact that Muslim parents trust them more than they do the state and its institutions.
In the Middle East, Haqqani said, indoctrination and education are closely linked, and one form or another of indoctrination will always prevail. Education is a product of the political system, he argued, and modification of the former will have little effect on the latter. Haqqani warned would-be reformers that “trying to indoctrinate in the other direction also has consequences. … There is no quick fix.”
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report Online.