Friday, July 22, 2005

The Myth of the Madrassa

Note: The title of this entry is a slightly edited form of an article that appeared in The New York Times, which I will discuss within.

In a June 14 article by Peter Bergen (left) and Swati Pandey of the New America Foundation, the myth that Islamic religious schools or madrassas are the root of all terrorism committed in the name of Islam was successfully debunked. They note that while Western political leaders, including former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and now British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have placed the blame on madrassas, particularly those located throughout Pakistan, for "teaching hatred," the truth is acutally much more complex.

In their basic form, Sunni Muslim madrassas in Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world teach students to memorize and recite the Qur'an while also introducing them to the Ahadith collections of traditions associated with the Prophet Muhammad and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and law (shari'a.)

Shi'i seminaries are generally much more scholarly and instruct students in a range of other subjects, including non-Muslim philosophy, logic, critical thinking, history, languages, and oratory. Shi'i seminaries are a separate issue and, in fact, are not the focus of Western accusations of teaching militancy of the brand al Qaeda peddles.

As Bergen and Pandey state, while it is true that some madrassas (right) may indoctrinate their young students with a simplistic and militant brand of Sunni Islam, "such schools do not teach the technical or linguistic skills necessary to be an effective terrorist. Indeed, there is little or no evidence that madrassas produce terrorists capable of attacking the West. And as a matter of national security, the United States doesn't need to worry about Muslim fundamentalists with whom we may disagree, but about terrorists who want to attack us."

Bergen and Pandey note that after examining the backgrounds of 75 terrorists involved in recent, high profile attacks, 53% of them have attended college or have earned a college degree; 52% of Americans have been to college. They conclude that, on average, the terrorists are as well educated as most Americans. In fact, many of the world's terrorist leaders are highly educated and have spent little time in a madrassa and have minimal formal religious training. Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda's Operational Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, and a host of other al-Qaeda leaders are not trained as clerics. Instead, many of them have advanced education in fields such as business and the laboratory sciences, including biology and medicine. So, the root causes of their ideology cannot be solely blamed on the madrassas.

Now, as Bergen and Pandey note, the type of education provided by some madrassas is an issue. Indeed, some do teach their students a simplistic and militant brand of Sunni Islam and this needs to be addressed. However, to blame all of the world's terrorism woes on madrassas is simplistic and foolish. On a related note, Western leaders should also not be so quick to look at the Muslim world as the sole cause of such ideology; let us not forget that many of the September 11, 2001 hijackers and the London bombers were educated in the West. In the case of the London bombers, three of the four were British nationals with advanced degrees from secular universities. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraff has brought up this very point in response to Blair's accusations implicating Pakistani madrassas in the London bombings.

To view Bergen and Pandey's full op-ed, see:
http://www.newamerica.net/index.cfm?pg=article&DocID=2418

For an excellent critique of the madrassa debate, written by Muhammad Ali Siddiqi, a former Pakistani ambassador, see:
http://www.dawn.com/2005/07/23/op.htm

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