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U.S. Supports School Reform in Pakistan - 2004-09-07

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, madrassas – schools of Islamic religious teaching - have spread around the Muslim world as well as in Muslim immigrant communities in Europe and the United States. Some have become a major source of radical influence on the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports Pakistan with U-S aid is trying to broaden the curriculum of madrassas and make them more attuned to the modern world, but it will not be easy.

During the 1980’s, Islamic religious schools in Pakistan were used to recruit fighters against the Soviet Army in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistani-born Akbar Ahmed, director of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, recalls the words of a leading madrassa cleric in the city of Peshawar: “His famous statement was that every time the Taleban needed fighters, he would simply close his school and say: ‘All of you, go across the border and fight alongside the Taleban.’ So you had that feeling at the madrassa level of education in Pakistan that education wasn’t something that was simply academic and detached, but something that was directly related to the world in which we live and a world which can be changed, and changed in an Islamic direction.”

Professor Ahmed says the United States helped train these student-fighters in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia financed their religious schools. When the Soviets left Afghanistan, the United States largely lost interest in madrassas, while wealthier Muslim states continued to support them.

Rollie Lal, an international security specialist at the Rand Corporation, says these institutions have become a breeding ground for terrorists without the world noticing it: “I would say that it didn’t really come to the forefront of the sort of international and the general public’s imagination until after nine-eleven. Even now I’d say that it’s not a very commonly understood or discussed issue, not to the extent that it should be.”

For example, says Rollie Lal, in the past twenty years, madrassas have become important social institutions, offering services the government has failed to provide: free education and very often food, clothing and shelter. In the meantime, says Rollie Lal, Pakistan’s public school system has deteriorated.

“You have these military who don’t really care whether or not education is being implemented. Then you have people in the rest of Pakistan who are basically taking the money that’s needed for building schools and pocketing it. There have been many stories about schools that supposedly exist in Pakistan, and then later on you have someone go and check to see what’s going on in the school, and the schools don’t exist. There are fake teachers. It’s just basically a complete breakdown of oversight, transparency and bureaucracy,” says Ms Lal.

So people, especially the poor, have turned to more reliable religious institutions, and the number of madrassas has grown from several hundred in the 1970-s to tens of thousands today. Akbar Ahmed says the exact number is hard to establish: “We must remember that a madrassa very often is simply an open compound under a tree in a village.”

In addition to Koranic verse, madrassa students are often taught to prepare to sacrifice their life for Islam. Professor Ahmed, who visited many of the schools during the 1980’s as an official of the Pakistani government, says few teach skills that could contribute to Paksitan’s social, economic and political development.

“For instance, I would ask the teachers: do you know of Karl Marx, or Max Weber, because after all, you are living in the modern word and you must interact with modern ideas and they had never heard of these ideas. Secondly, they were not being taught many of the Muslim scholars and Muslim philosophers and poets who were teaching a broad, compassionate, tolerant kind of Islam,” recalls Professor Ahmed.

After the September-eleven attacks on the United States and several terrorist attempts on President Musharraf’s life, Pakistan’s government with U-S help embarked on an initiative to combat religious zealotry by broadening educational choices. A five-year one-billion-dollar plan introduced last year includes adding secular subjects, such as English, math, science and computers to the madrassa curriculum.

To control the influx of outsiders, who are among the most radical Islamists, a law was passed in 2002 that requires madrassas to audit their funding and have foreign students register with the government.

The program, started as a pilot project in 320 schools, has met with resistance from many clerics. But Professor Ahmed says with sensitive implementation and intensive teacher training, it may produce results.

In addition, the US Agency for International Development has made a hundred-million dollar commitment to rehabilitate Pakistani public schools. Analysts believe if the Pakistani government could make good and free education available to all children, many of them would leave madrassas for public schools.