Religious education has existed for thousands of years. Some of the oldest faith-based schools on earth are on the Indian subcontinent. Similar to a parochial school for Christians, a madrassa - which means "center of learning" in Arabic - has traditionally provided a general education grounded in Islamic traditions.
But critics say these Islamic seminaries in some parts of the Muslim world, including Pakistan, breed extremism. It's been discovered that three of the four London suicide bombers had traveled to Pakistan in the past year, and two of them are believed to have attended madrassas during that time.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he is looking for new ways young Britons can confront Islamic extremism. “There is a strong desire to have people from the community able to talk to the Muslim community, particularly young Muslims in their community," says the prime minister, "and confront this evil ideology, take it on, and defeat it by the force of reason and argument.”
Mr. Blair says the roots of such extremist ideology are found, among other places, in some of the madrassas of Pakistan. Some observers even say these schools even encourage terrorist extremism. But others disagree.
Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst and author of the book Holy War, recently wrote in The New York Times that the widespread assumption that these Islamic seminaries produce students who become terrorists is overblown. He stresses that they don't teach the technical skills to be an effective terrorist and should not be considered a threat.
Given the wide spectrum of opinion on these religious schools, Saleem Ali of the University of Vermont decided to investigate. He recently spent four months during a two year period visiting Pakistani madrassas. He cautions that branding all madrassas as jihad factories or schools of hate is unfair. Yet he says many throughout the Muslim world promote religious intolerance and encourage sectarian violence. “Madrassas, despite their noble past, are in dire straits right now and need reform," he explains. "From my own research, it is clear that the world view of the madrassa graduate is very narrow. There is a tremendous degree of intolerance that is part of the madrassa culture. This must be addressed.”
These ancient institutions are a vital educational tradition in Islam. Professor Ali says throughout much of their existence, they preached tolerance toward other religions. But today, the heart of the problem, he says, lies in a very different message - one of strong dislike of those who are different. He says part of the change began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, says policies Pakistan and of other countries at that time, including the United States, contributed to the Pakistani madrassa dilemma. “The historical root of this problem is the joint effect of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others to use madrassas to take advantage of the displaced Afghanistan population," she says.
The United States and Saudi Arabia funded these militant madrassas to train mujahedin to fight against the Soviet military in Afghanistan. By the end of the Afghan war in 1989, there were several thousand madrassas. Many of their graduates became leaders of the radical Taleban movement that, until recently, ruled Afghanistan.
The University of Vermont's Saleem Ali says that in addition to fostering intolerance, many madrassas fail to produce graduates equipped with useful skills. “They have been manipulated by various political interests both domestically and abroad," he says, "and so the result has been that they are now producing graduates who are not functional in society both from a career planning perspective and thus much more vulnerable to be taken on by extremists.”
Immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, analysts scrutinized the possible link between some radical Pakistani madrassas and international terrorist organizations.
More than three years ago, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf outlined efforts to eradicate intolerance and Islamist extremism by removing messages of hatred and bigotry from madrassa curricula. But the Brussels-based International Crisis Group - an organization that promotes conflict resolution - has sharply criticized the Pakistani leader, saying his actions have not matched his rhetoric. Some analysts point out that madrassa reform has been difficult, as President Musharraf's political base includes Islamist political parties.
John Raines, who teaches comparative religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, says a religious university in Indonesia is beginning the kind of program that could be a model for the Muslim world, including Pakistan. “The training of religious teachers will become more and more a cross-cultural training, rather than an isolated religious training where you study only with your own kind and study only your own religion. That is something that is very promising,” he says.
The course includes the study of numerous religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. Most observers praise such programs. But in the case of Pakistan, they argue such curriculum are needed even the public schools that sometimes teach intolerance of other religions. Meanwhile, many scholars warn that failing education systems in Muslim countries are a long-term threat to the West and that the West should do all it can to help fix them.