Magazine article Newsweek International

The Muslim Madrassa Myth

Magazine article Newsweek International

The Muslim Madrassa Myth

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

The problem with Arab education goes beyond a few extremist schools.

You've probably heard of Madrassas. The word, which means "schools" in Arabic, took on ominous overtones after 9/11, when Western pundits and politicians warned that extremist Saudi-financed religious schools were filling the education gap throughout the Muslim world but sending youngsters straight into the arms of Al Qaeda.

If anything, you'd think the problem would have gotten worse since then, thanks to the global financial crisis. But it turns out that the madrassa storyline was never so stark--and the real problem with education in the Muslim world is more complicated. The good news is that religious madrassas have never been for the masses; even the infamous ones in Pakistan educate less than 3 percent of the total student population in the country, and the numbers are equally negligible in the Arab world. Yet that's little cause for celebration. Government schools that do educate the masses are mind-numbing and anachronistic, utterly useless for helping graduates face global competition. And their failures are far more dangerous.

This wound is largely self-inflicted. "Generations have been raised not to question authority" or think critically, says a leading Arab reform advocate, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivities involved. "This was on the premise that by doing so you raise a docile population--but the results have been just the opposite."

A major report issued by the World Bank last year documents the problem. Arab public schools, which educate roughly 80 percent of the population, are often designed to turn out minimally skilled bureaucrats who are not even guaranteed government jobs any longer. And good luck finding work in the private sector. The result, says Marwan Muasher, who was previously an architect of Jordan's long-term development strategy, "is a huge number of young people who are unemployed, frustrated, and may be subject to radical ideologies. …

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