6/2/09 - madrassas

In today's excerpt - madrassas, the Islamic schools in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan viewed with concern by the U.S. as a breeding ground for terrorists. Yet government funding in these countries for basic services such as schools is severely limited, leaving madrassas as the only viable option for many of the poorer citizens, and providing an opportunity for terrorist groups to gain credibility vis-a-vis the government by providing such necessities as school food and clothing:

"American national security strategists remained deeply concerned over the fact that the madrassas were actually growing in number. In the autumn of 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld penned a memo in which he confessed that 'we lack the metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.' Rumsfeld added, 'Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?' At the time, I was interning at the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, a think tank in Quantico, Virginia, conducting research on religion and violence around the world. Frankly, I didn't know much on the subject, though Rumsfeld's memo piqued my curiosity. Why were the madrassas growing in number? And were terrorists, like the ones involved in the 9/11 plot, prone to plan a sophisticated attack inside one of these backcountry schools?

"Soon after arriving in Pakistan I embarked on a journey around the country to observe an array of madrassas—and to find out what compelled students to go there, and whether they showed any signs of the reforms Musharraf had promised to enact. I found that, in many cases, economic factors and the state's collapsed education system—rather than some obsession with radical ideology—offered a better explanation for why parents sent their students to madrassas. At the public schools teachers didn't show up for work, schools laid in disrepair, and the nation's literacy rate hovered around 50 percent. For parents, especially in the more desperate households, opting to pull their children out of public schools and put them in madrassas was an easy choice. In a 2004 essay, Dr. Tariq Rahman, author of Denizens of Alien Worlds: A Study of Education, Inequality, and Polarization in Pakistan, wrote that of the madrassa students he surveyed in his research, '76.6 percent belonged to the poorer sections of society.'

"To serve the most destitute families, some madrassas even offered scholarships, according to Amir Rana, a terrorism analyst in Lahore. 'For each child they send to a madrassa, a family could make another eight or ten dollars a month,' he said. 'A poor family with no chances for work could send five or six kids to madrassas, and use the money they get to feed the rest of the family.' Plus, those who attended the madrassa received three meals a day, clean clothes, and a place to sleep. In the absence of a welfare state, or even a well-functioning state, madrassas performed the double role of being a school and an NGO (nongovernmental organization [which are typically involved in providing charitable services to the very poor]).

" 'In the U.S., they say madrassas are a big problem in Pakistan. That's not our problem,' Dr. Ata-ur-Rahman, a sharp, impressive leader of Jamaat-i-Islami, former member of parliament and a principal of a madrassa in the North-West Frontier Province, told me. 'Our problem in Pakistan is not madrassas. Our problem is clean drinking water. Our problem is sanitation. Our problem is health care. These are our problems that you should highlight somewhere.' "


Nicholas Schmidle


To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan


Henry Holt and Company, LLC


Copyright 2009 by Nicholas Schmidle


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