FORT KNOX, Kentucky — In the West, any familiarity with the word ‘madrassa’ elicits a connection to violent extremism and terrorism. Yet the Islamic madrassa is a religious school, albeit an arcane institution, but not by definition a terrorist production factory.
The International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) is a D.C. based NGO that strives to disconnect the link between madrassas and terrorism. The organization focuses on preventative diplomacy. The ICRD seeks to deconstruct the isolated environments of madrassas “by creating critical thinking skills among the students and inspiring great adherence to the principles
Pakistan has over 20,000 religious schools and, according to the Washington Post, U.S. officials and analysts believe most are not directly linked to extremism. However many are labeled “incubators of radicalism.”
“You have 2 to 3 million students progressively [who]have become a lot more isolated and alienated from societies.” Azhar Hussain, Senior Vice President of ICRD, addresses the fundamental concern with the existing madrassa system. “They are taught a certain ideology not to trust their own society and in extension, they don’t trust the international community.”
Those like Feriha Peracha feel that education reforms are the key to investing in Pakistan’s future and to deconstruct the link between madrassas and terrorism. Paracha founded the Sabaoon School, which promotes a system designed to teach empathy where unlike current madrassas where according to master’s student Ayesha Sadiqa “the teacher uses the stick and does not use love.”
“Unless you allow a child to read and understand what he is reading in a book about humanism, that child isn’t learning anything” Peracha judges.
Ten years ago the U.S. State Department invested nearly $100 million into reforming the education system in Pakistan focused on engineering and technology. A decade later there’s still a major challenge.
In 2015, the Washington Post published an article titled ‘Pakistan is still trying to get a grip on its madrassa problem.’ Though most Pakistan’s religious schools do not exhibit a direct link between madrassas and terrorism, the article quotes terrorism expert Muhammad Amir Rana, “Terrorism has many different shades, but madrassas have been the nursery.”
The ongoing issue with madrassas relates to government accountability. Rana went on to highlight the “very serious threat” madrassas pose because the Pakistani government continues to tolerate Imams preaching the “enemies of Islam.”
Successfully disassociating the link between madrassas and terrorism first depends on allowing women access to education. “There is a saying that ‘the mother is the first teacher'” according to famed Pakistani columnist and peace activist Khwaja Shuja Abbas. “The problem in our society is that our mothers are not educated.”
Malala Yousafzai nearly fell victim to madrassa-born terrorism, and instead has raised global awareness to back an effective tactic against the spread of violent extremism. “I do not want to be thought of as the ‘girl who was shot by the Taliban'” rather the Nobel Peace Prize winner wants to be known as “the girl who fought for education.”
Kids need to go to school and reforming the religious education is paramount to investing in the future and nullifying the link between madrassas and terrorism. Attacking violent extremism at the source seems logical enough, but despite the U.S. foreign policy inducements and Pakistani government backing, there’s still a long way to go.
– Tim Devine