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Reforming Madrassas in South Asia

Islamic religious schools, or madrassas, have come under increased scrutiny in recent years for being potential incubators for terrorism. But many experts say the madrassa concept is largely misunderstood, although some of these schools in regions such as South Asia do encourage extremism.

The Arabic word, madrassa, refers to a wide range of Islamic and secular primary and secondary schools. In some parts of the world, such as the Middle East, Islam is taught throughout the school system as a mandatory part of a broad national curriculum. But in parts of South Asia, like Pakistan and Afghanistan, madrassa refers to dedicated seminaries that are mainly concerned with teaching Islam.

Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic studies scholar at American University in Washington, says madrassas originally were centers of knowledge and learning. "The concept of the madrassa is very much misunderstood. Classically and historically, it simply meant a school or a college. And a thousand years ago, the madrassas of the world of Islam were the Oxford and Cambridge Universities of their time," says Ahmed. "The madrassas of Bukhara and Samarkand in Central Asia attracted the brightest minds from all over the world. So you had art, science and astronomy being studied at the madrassas."

The View from South Asia

Modern madrassas are different, says Ahmed, and are often perceived as hotbeds for terrorism. While the 2001 terror attacks on the United States focused attention on these schools and their teachings, Ahmed says their evolution, particularly in South Asia, began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

"Today the madrassa means a nursery for extremists and fanatics, and this is the common understanding of the madrassa," says Ahmed. "The madrassas in Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s were producing 12-, 13-year-old boys with very limited understanding beyond what they learned at the madrassa. And they were being groomed to grow up in a world in which there was the jihad against the Soviet Union. And this movement was encouraged, financed and aided by the intelligence services of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States."

During that time, madrassas were centers for teaching religion and fighting against the Soviets. Their recruits, says Qamar-ul Huda of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, were millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran. "These refugee camps and also then the refugee centers that fed into these madrassas, they were ready and willing to fight for Afghanistan. And so you have this mix of politics, religion, defending yourself and defending your identity in history against those who were trying to oppress you," says Huda. "And that's how people spoke in these institutions. It is a multiple of extremist thinking, of acting, of seeing the world and your place in the world."

Hotbeds for Terrorism?

Many analysts say this blend is what produced Afghanistan's militant Taliban fighters and fueled the notion that these madrassas were breeding grounds for terrorists. Some experts argue that in places like Saudi Arabia, it wasn't the madrassas that produced al-Qaida followers, but universities teaching an extreme version of Islam.

Muqtedar Khan, Director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Delaware, says only a few madrassas propagate extremism. "The largest numbers of madrassas in the world are in India. There are nearly 600-thousand madrassas in India. And they do not produce any terrorists at all. And there are nearly 180-thousand madrassas in Pakistan and Bangladesh. But there are some 40, 50, 60 madrassas is Pakistan, which are connected [to each other] and have become geo-political institutions to fork out this ideology of jihad and to train people to fight," says Khan. "But most of the madrassas is South Asia today are more like orphanages where poor children learn a little bit of education."

Madrassas typically cater to the poor, says Khan. That is why he maintains that changing their sometimes-ancient textbooks and curricula is not enough to modernize them. He stresses that unresolved conflicts often feed madrassas with politically disenchanted recruits. "We must create alternative networks of secular schools which can take care of these children and some kind of a welfare network which can take care of the poor. We must also address the root causes of these problems. Otherwise, it may not be Islamism, but some other ideology," says Khan. "Prior to Islamism in the 1970s, Muslim frustration in the Arab World and South Asia was channeled through Marxist ideas. So it's not just about Islam or madrassas. It's about genuine political issues which remain unaddressed."

Calls for Reform

Madrassa reforms in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim World seek to broaden the curriculum and teach new skills to help provide a better future for their students. While these reforms are promising, Akbar Ahmed of American University says ensuring their success is crucial.

"Reformation of the madrassas has to happen. When I was Commissioner in charge of parts of Baluchistan, I had a whole variety of schools under me, including the madrassas. They didn't have budgets; teachers were under-trained and, in turn, they were passing on their rather limited understanding of the world to their students," says Ahmed. "So you really need a complete overhaul of the madrassas. You need to have new curricula, teachers training programs [and] computers so that these kids change their mindset [and] they look at Islam in a very different way."

Ahmed says failure is not an option because madrassas in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan are mainstream schools that teach millions of boys.