Uneducating the Islamic World

By Berman, Ilan | The American Spectator, July/August 2009 | Go to article overview

Uneducating the Islamic World


Berman, Ilan, The American Spectator


GIVE BARACK OBAMA CREDIT FOR THINKING BIG. Since taking office this past January, the president has embarked upon a fundamental reboot of American foreign policy. From semantic steps like the renaming of the War on Terror to more substantive ones- including an overhaul of defense priorities and new outreach to countries such as Iran and Russia- the Obama administration has wasted no time making clear that it plans to reshape the way the United States interacts with the outside world.

Of all the initiatives now being contemplated by the White House, none are more potentially farreaching than its plans for a new diplomatic offensive toward the Muslim world. In his historic April address to the Turkish parliament, the president promised a political, cultural, and economic partnership "with people across the Muslim world to advance our common hopes, and our common dreams." As the Obama administration embarks on this effort, however, it is liable to find that long-term success hinges upon a topic that is rarely discussed and even more poorly understood: basic education in the Islamic world.

To understand the importance of this issue to the domestic stability and political outlook of Muslim nations, one need only look at Pakistan. Over the past three decades, Pakistan's educational sector has steadily atrophied, a casualty of neglect and partisan politics. In its place has risen a parallel religious education system built around a specialized Islamic curriculum known as the Dars-e Nizami. Ostensibly, other subjects- including mathematics, history, and medicine- are also offered. But specialists such as Christine Fair of the United States Institute of Peace are quick to point out that this falls far short of a "well-rounded education," since all the texts used for instruction, even those for supposedly "rational sciences," are fundamentalist in nature, and many have stopped being taught altogether in Pakistan's more than 10,000 madaris (the plural of madrassd).

Of those, Darul Uloom Haqqania in the country's North-West Frontier Province is among the most prominent. In the past, Darul Uloom is known to have served as a training ground for Taliban leaders, as well as a recruiting center for Pakistani militants fighting in the disputed region of Kashmir. Today, Darul Uloom still casts a long ideological shadow; more than 2,800 Pakistani, Afghan, Tajik, Kazakh, Uzbek, and Chechen students are currently estimated to be enrolled there. Also prominent are the Ahle-hadith madaris, located outside Lahore. These are known to have provided fighters to Lashkar-e Taiba, the Kashmiri terrorist group responsible for the bloody November 2008 assault on the Indian city of Mumbai.

By objective standards, the size of the problem is still small. Officials in Islamabad estimate that some 1.7 million students- just 1 percent of the country's total population- are currently enrolled in the madrassa system. Yet if even a fraction of that number becomes radicalized enough to join the jihad against the West, it would be a boon to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and a major challenge to the United States and its allies. And by all indications, that is precisely what is happening in places such as Afghanistan and Kashmir, where anecdotal evidence suggests that local radicals are being reinforced by new recruits from Pakistan's Islamic schools.

Pakistan maybe the most prominent example of this radicalization, but it is hardly the only one. Indeed, the same conditions that empowered the rise of a parallel, largely unaccountable educational system in South Asia's most unstable state can be seen today throughout the rest of the Islamic world.

IT WAS NOT ALWAYS THIS WAY. Between the eighth and tenth centuries, Islamic thinkers pioneered significant new knowledge in mathematics and astronomy. The same period saw the translation and dissemination of classic books of literature and Greek philosophy throughout the Muslim world, and new inventions that aided technological and scientific discovery. …

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