Madrassa reform key

The Washington Times
By Douglas M. Johnston | Friday, August 7, 2009

Signs of promise within religious schools

No one doubts that the key to impacting the hearts and minds of Pakistan’s rising generation of leaders starts with educational reforms in the grade schools and high schools.

However, all U.S. assistance currently is going toward improvement of the secular schools and not to Pakistan’s 20,000 madrassas, i.e. religious schools, reputed to be hotbeds of radicalism. The fact is, however, that efforts to turn madrassas away from radicalism are succeeding and need U.S. support.

Stories in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have emphasized the ties of madrassas to terrorism and their resistance to change. At the other end of the spectrum, the June issue of Foreign Policy magazine argued that the madrassas have less impact than previously thought and are largely irrelevant to the turmoil that is taking place. So which is it: a lost cause or a fool’s errand?

Actually, it is neither. There is an untold side to this story. These schools are very influential, and reform of their curricula is not only possible, it’s happening. The fact that it is needs the attention of the U.S. Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development as well as the international donor community. To prevent Pakistan’s slide toward a failed nuclear state, broad educational enhancement of the madrassas will be essential.

It is estimated that about 15 percent of the madrassas preach violence or militancy. Since there may be more than 1 million madrassa students, this clearly represents a potent force. Much greater, however, is the untapped potential of the less militant madrassas to contribute to peacemaking if properly encouraged.

In addition to the respect that madrassa leaders command among their students, they enjoy significant influence as religious authorities through their Friday sermons in the mosques. With this in mind, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, has engaged a number of Pakistan’s madrassas for the last five years, training more than 2,200 madrassa leaders and senior faculty from some 1,450 madrassas, including a sizable number in the more radical areas of the country.

The training emphasizes critical thinking skills, religious tolerance and human rights — especially women’s.

This initiative has been well-received by madrassa leaders because they effectively “own” the enhancement process. These leaders are reminded of madrassas’ institutional history, and of the pioneering breakthroughs in the arts and sciences — including religious tolerance — that took place under Islam 1,000 years ago.

In fact, from the Middle Ages through the 16th century, these religious schools were without peer as institutions of higher learning, drawing pilgrims from the West and making important contributions to math, science and the humanities.

Further, all suggested changes in the curricula are grounded in Islamic principles, enabling participants to feel they are becoming better Muslims in the process. When thus engaged, a number of madrassa leaders have stepped forward as effective agents for peace. For example: One of our madrassa partners played an instrumental role in securing the release of 21 Korean Christians held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the summer of 2007. He organized an informal delegation of religious leaders who engaged the captors on the basis of Islamic principles.

During a workshop in 2008 at a madrassa known to be a major al Qaeda feeder, another madrassa partner persuaded the participants that the jihad they were waging in Kashmir was politically motivated, but not religiously sanctioned. These same madrassa leaders are now toning down the militancy of their graduates.

At a more recent workshop involving leaders from 16 madrassas surrounding the Swat Valley, one of the participants, a commander of a well-known terrorist group, stood up at the end and declared he had attended in order to discredit everything the workshop was teaching. But as a result of his participation, he said, he now felt that for the first time in his life, he understood the peaceful intent of the Koran. He repeated this message to a CNN camera crew for a forthcoming documentary.

ICRD is now receiving more requests for training than it can accommodate from individual madrassas across the country — including those that trained the current Taliban leadership and which are now seeking guidance for teaching a more enlightened curriculum to the children of Taliban members.

Madrassa leaders also seek assistance in enriching their offerings with basic subjects such as math, science, and English — disciplines either not now being taught or being taught with too little expertise. Ignoring opportunities for positive engagement with the madrassas could prove fatal to U.S. interests over time.

The will to improve their education, to counter extremism by promoting authentic religious values, and to contribute to the stability and prosperity of their country already exists within the madrassa community. The key to unleashing this is to engage selected madrassa leaders as partners in providing the best possible future for their students, rather than marginalizing or denigrating them.

To do so, the support and commitment of the Obama administration will be needed. Courageous madrassa leaders are stepping up to the challenge. The question is, will we?

Future aid funding should be made contingent upon doing what’s best for all of Pakistan’s students, including those in the madrassas.

Douglas M. Johnston is president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and author of “Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft.”

Copyright 2009 The Washington Times, LLC

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