Education and extremism


Pakistan: The United States is donating $100 million to help the nation's troubled schools, even religious ones that have been accused of breeding Islamic terrorism.

April 17, 2003|By Chris Kraul | Chris Kraul,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - In a major injection of new aid, the United States is donating $100 million over five years to Pakistan's troubled education system, including its religious schools, even though those schools, called madrassas, have been accused of breeding Islamic extremism.

A program administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development has been geared to focus on training teachers, reforming curriculums and assisting in the formation of programs in which corporations "adopt" schools.

Aid will be available to any school that demonstrates a capacity to increase literacy in a country where fewer than half of adults can read and write.

The crisis in education in Pakistan is blamed for a host of social and economic ills, including unemployment, accelerating population growth and terrorism.

As the United States starts the aid program, the government of President Pervez Musharraf is coming under fire for not clamping down hard enough on the madrassas, a handful of which supplied leaders and foot soldiers for the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic government in neighboring Afghanistan that played host to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden before being driven from power by a U.S.-led coalition in late 2001.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels, Belgium-based think tank, said the madrassas pose the same danger in turning out extremists that they did in the 1990s, when some graduates went on to wage jihads, or holy wars, against nonbelievers in Afghanistan and the disputed Kashmir region of India.

The Belgian group said the danger has not abated despite promises by the Musharraf government to bring the schools to heel.

Other observers say the majority of Pakistan's 10,000 or so madrassas have been unjustly tarred by the Taliban brush and that the schools - which educate about 10 percent of Pakistani students - fill a vacuum in a country where the education system is a shambles.

The U.S. aid program, with its goal of assisting Islamic, public and secular private schools, reflects the widespread belief among educators and officials familiar with Pakistan that madrassas serve a useful function.

"It's unfortunate that some people think all madrassas are turning out extremists. The vast majority of them welcome secular courses like science and math and, we hope, will take advantage of teacher training and other programs that our new project will offer," said Mark Ward, director of the Agency for International Development's mission in Pakistan.

To bring radical madrassas into the mainstream, education experts here seem to agree, aid has a better chance than enforced reorganization, so embedded are the religious schools in the social and political fabric.

Any aid would seem to be welcome in places such as Peshawar, a bustling, dusty city of 1.8 million where half of school-age children, especially girls, stay at home or all but waste their time in one of Pakistan's many "ghost" public schools, notorious for their largely absentee teachers, dearth of textbooks and patchy curricula.

Like about 10 percent of Pakistani children, Ziallulah, 10, depends on a madrassa for the scant education she can get. She goes to the run-down Darul Haffaz school on the outskirts of town because it's the only one within three miles of her home that will take her.

She studies a little English and math, but mainly the Quran, hoping it will prepare her to be a religious scholar or functionary.

"I am learning to recite the Quran by heart," said Ziallulah, whose father is a Pakistani soldier. That skill will qualify her to earn a little money reciting funeral rites for deceased women. But her situation illustrates a common criticism of madrassas, that they have little vocational value for their students.

Kashkul Ahmad is principal of Ziallulah's school, which includes 140 girls and 60 boys. He says 1,000 families in his neighborhood have no other option but to send their children to him. He says he's "too busy teaching" the Quran and other subjects to worry about radicalizing his students to fight nonbelievers.

Others say a small but dangerous number of madrassas are not so benign. Granting that few Islamic schools have ties to extremists, an International Crisis Group report issued last summer said such ties do exist.

"Most madrassas aligned with jihadi [holy warriors] and sectarian parties continue to work unhindered, belying government claims that extremist groups have been banned," the report said.

Musharraf attempted to rein in the madrassas with reform efforts in 2000 and in June last year, both of which failed. He had hoped to force the schools to bar foreign students, register with the government and account for donations.

In the face of stiff political resistance, Musharraf backed off both times. Although madrassas must register with the government, the proposed donor accountability requirements and ban on foreign students were withdrawn.

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