Teachers are tasked with training tomorrow's leaders. In this country, that means equipping the next generation of Americans to succeed in fields such as law, medicine, business, teaching, and art. In the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and elsewhere in the Muslim world, it can mean developing in unknowing children a hatred for free societies, a desire to murder innocent people, and an ability to lead terrorist organizations. This perversion of education—which takes place in religious schools known as madrassas—makes the classroom ground zero in the war against Islamic radicalism.
While radical madrassas operate in many corners of the globe, this column will focus specifically on madrassas in Pakistan, as that country’s educational challenges are representative of those facing countless other nations.
Estimates about the number of madrassas in Pakistan vary, but we can safely assume that at least 20,000 and perhaps as many as 45,000 currently operate in the country. No matter the actual number, the rate of growth in the number of Pakistani madrassas is astounding; as late as 1995 the country had just 4,000, according to the International Crisis Group.
Americans should know three things about the madrassas in Pakistan—they are free, effective, and many espouse radical Islamic ideology. Poverty prevents many Pakistanis from purchasing materials—books, for example—needed to attend public schools. The allure of a free education therefore is potent. Enter Saudi Arabia, which assumes much of the costs of operating madrassas in Pakistan and other countries in the Muslim world. Since Pakistan spends only 2.2 percent of its gross domestic product on education, the influx of Saudi Arabian resources is a welcome development; many Pakistani children would not otherwise receive an education. The problem is that the majority of madrassas do not provide instruction in math, science, or computers; instead, they focus exclusively on Islamic scripture and history. In turn, poor students fail to develop the skills necessary to compete in the global, knowledge-based economy, which ultimately fixes them in a state of poverty, which makes them even more reliant upon the one thing they do know and understand—radical Islam.
Young, impressionable minds that are filled with hateful ideology will likely carry out the tenants of that ideology as adults. This is the curse of the "effectiveness" of so many madrassas. Take the July 7, 2005 London bombings, for example. One of the homicide-bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan, was schooled at a madrassa in Pakistan in July 2003; another, Shehzad Tanweer, reportedly attended a session at a Pakistani madrassa. Shortly after the bombings, speakers at the United Nation's Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights described Pakistan's madrassas as "nurseries of death and destruction."
To his credit, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has attempted—albeit unsuccessfully, and perhaps halfheartedly—to crack down on madrassas. After September 11, Musharraf attempted to modernize the schools with a $100 million plan to expand curriculums to include subjects such as math and science. But as of late 2006, nearly five years after the reforms were first announced, Newsday reported that the reform project "has collapsed so badly that…that the government took back its funds." Things are so bad, Newsday continued, that the "program's staff, office rent and utility bills have gone unpaid." If things are that bad with the reform project, we can infer that the "effectiveness" of the madrassas—that is, their factory-like production of terrorists—continues.
Saudi Arabia is as much behind the financing of madrassas as they are the reason for their effectiveness. According to Vali Nasr, a professor at the University of San Diego and an expert on Islamic extremism, Saudi Arabia "has been the single biggest source of funding for fanatical interpretations of Islam, and the embodiment of that interpretation in organizations and schools has created a self-perpetuating institutional basis for promoting fanaticism across the Muslim world."
The expansion of such Saudi-financed fanaticism is occurring beyond the borders of Pakistan. In fact, terrorism analyst Frank Gaffney believes the rise of radical madrassas in Africa is “steadily eliminating the tolerant and moderate traditions of African Islam.”
This is a deeply disturbing trend, one that warrants two major responses.
Step one: In concert with other free countries, the United States must press Saudi Arabia to curtail its funding of radical madrassas. We must persuade the Saudi government that radical Islam is no friend of theirs, and that only chaos, nihilistic violence, and destitution await those who fall under its grasp. Saudi Arabia ultimately has to come to terms with what kind of leader they want to be in the Arab world. Do they want to be known as the biggest exporters of a hateful side of Islam that promotes killing infidels, or do they want to lead an effort to emphasize the possibilities of how Islam can co-exist peacefully with the rest of the world? In the court of world opinion, I hope they move quickly to the latter.
Step two: the U.S. must offer financial and logistical support to schools that promote the virtues of freedom, peace, and tolerance to the next generation of Muslims. This will take billions of dollars, and countless hours of training. The U.S. is dedicating some resources to the effort at this point in time, but not enough. We also should not—and cannot—bear this burden alone. Countries like the United Arab Emirats, and organizations like the European Union, should partner with the U.S. to make this happen.
Our goal is an ambitious one: To provide educational opportunities to Muslim parents so that their children do not grow up to be hot headed radicals but well educated, peace loving contributors to their local community. Only by reducing Saudi funding and increasing funding from the developed world, can we avoid a generational disaster in the making.