Understanding Madrasahs

Courtesy Reuters


Madrasahs, the religious schools that educate millions of students in the Muslim world, have been blamed for all sorts of ills since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Critics have denounced them as dens of terror, hatcheries for suicide bombers, and repositories of medievalism. As Samina Ahmed and Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group wrote in The Washington Post after last July's London bombings, "Jihadi extremism is still propagated at radical madrassas in Pakistan. ... And now, it seems, the hatred these madrassas breed is spilling blood in Western cities as well."

These criticisms have focused on the few dozen Pakistani madrasahs that served as de facto training grounds for jihadists fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Many of these jihadists went on to become foot soldiers in later campaigns, including those against Indian rule over Kashmir and against Shiite Muslims within Pakistan. They also helped forge the Taliban and gave succor and support to Osama bin Laden. From this record, critics have put together a seemingly convincing charge sheet against madrasahs across the Muslim world. They extrapolate from this relatively small number of problem madrasahs in Pakistan and conclude that all madrasahs breed fanatics.

But they are wrong. The majority of madrasahs actually present an opportunity, not a threat. For young village kids, it may be their only path to literacy. For many orphans and the rural poor, madrasahs provide essential social services: education and lodging for children who otherwise could well find themselves the victims of forced labor, sex trafficking, or other abuse. And for U.S. and European policymakers, madrasahs offer an important arena for public diplomacy -- a chance to ensure that the Muslim leaders of tomorrow do not see the West as an enemy inherently hostile to all Muslim institutions.

Rather than undermining the madrasah system, then, Western policymakers should engage it. Beards and bombast may make for good newspaper copy, but the reality of the madrasah system is far different:

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