The Wilson Quarterly

Pakistan’s madrasas have gotten a bad rap, asserts Georgetown University political scientist C. Christine Fair. If you want to know how terrorists are groomed in Pakistan, she says, you need to look beyond the walls of these Islamic religious schools.

As Islamist terrorism became a bigger threat in the 2000s, U.S. analysts and politicians fingered Pakistani madrasas (which are attended by children and teenagers) as “nurseries of jihad,” Fair observes. The United States has since granted Pakistan $100 million in aid to improve public education and essentially “lure madrasa students back to public schools.” But claims that madrasas are “expanding dramatically” and “churning out jihadists by the thousands” are false, she writes. The misunderstanding can be traced to a 2002 International Crisis Group report that incorrectly stated that one-third of Pakistani students attended madrasas full-time. More credible research shows that the real number is between one and three percent. In addition, Fair’s research shows that madrasas’ share of the Pakistani student population has remained stable. There is no basis for the alarmist claims about the “burgeoning number of Pakistani madrasas and their supposed legions of aspiring terrorists,” she argues.

There is also a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of the institutions. The common view is that madrasas are schools of last resort, where poverty and extremism mingle to produce violence. The reality is otherwise. The majority of students who attend madrasas do so on a part-time basis, in conjunction with a private or public education. Pakistani parents use madrasas because “they want their children to have an Islamic education,” Fair says, just as many religious Americans send their children to parochial schools, Bible study, or Hebrew school. As in these institutions, the nature of religious instruction varies greatly across madrasas.

Not all madrasas are innocuous, Fair acknowledges. Militant groups affiliated with the Deobandi Islamic movement have made a practice of drawing terrorist recruits from Deobandi madrasas and mosques. And yes, madrasa students support extremist violence in greater numbers than their peers. But public school students support such violence at high rates too, Fair says, citing research by Pakistani scholar Tariq Rahman, and their numbers dwarf those of full-time madrasa students.

“Scholars would be better served by thinking of terrorist recruitment as a labor market in which organizations attempt to recruit the right person for the right job,” Fair writes. Many terrorist operations require agents with advanced technical skills, knowledge that is far outside the ambit of a madrasa education. “By doggedly insisting that Pakistan take action against madrasas, the United States has confused educational policy with law enforcement,” she says.

THE SOURCE: “The Enduring Madrasa Myth” by C. Christine Fair. Current History, April 2012.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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