Thursday, January 05, 2006

Myths and madrassas

"Myths and madrassas"

By William Dalrymple in Asia Times Online, Nov. 24, 2005
(originally published in the New York Review of Books.)

Shortly before four British Muslims, three of them of Pakistani origin, blew themselves up in the London Underground on July 7, I traveled along the Indus River to Akora Khattack in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Here, straddling the noisy, truck-thundering Islamabad highway, stands the Haqqania, one of the most radical of the religious schools called madrassas.

Many of the Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, were trained at this institution. If its teachings have been blamed for inspiring the brutal, ultra-conservative incarnation of Islamic law that that regime presided over, there is no sign that the Haqqania is ashamed of its former pupils: instead, the madrassa's director, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, still proudly boasts that whenever the Taliban put out a call for fighters, he would simply close down the madrassa and send his students off to fight. In many ways, then, Akora Khattack represents everything that US policymakers most fear and dislike in this region, a bastion of religious, intellectual, and sometimes - in the form of the Taliban - military resistance to Pax Americana and all it represents.

A dust storm was blowing as we crossed the Indus just below the massive ramparts of the fortress of Attock, once the great bulwark protecting India against incursions from Afghanistan. The road was lined with poplars. In the distance towered the jagged dragons' backs of the blue Margalla Hills; a graveyard lay to one side, its green grave flags fluttering in the breeze. A few kilometers beyond the river stood a ramshackle line of buildings, all built in a crude modern concrete version of Mughal architecture. Washing was hanging up to dry from the roofs and verandas of the dormitory blocks, and in the main courtyard students were bustling around. All were male, all wore turbans, and all were heavily bearded.

Maulana Sami proved, however, to be an unexpectedly dapper and cheery figure for a man supposed to be such an icon of anti-Western hatred. He wore a blue frock coat of vaguely Dickensian cut, and his neatly trimmed beard was raffishly dyed with henna. He had a craggy face, a large outcrop of nose, and the corners of his eyes were contoured with laughter lines. I was ushered into his office and introduced to his two-year-old granddaughter, who was playing happily with a yellow helium balloon. I remarked that there did not seem to be much evidence of the Haqqania suffering from the crackdown on centers of radicalism promised by President Pervez Musharraf. Sami's face lit up:

"That is for American consumption only," he laughed cheerfully. "It is only statements to the newspapers. Nothing has happened."

"So," I asked, "You are not finding the atmosphere difficult at the moment?"

"We are in a good, strong position," replied Sami. "[President George W] Bush has woken the entire Islamic world. We are grateful to him."

Sami smiled broadly: "Our job now is propagating Islamic ideology. We give free education, free clothes and books. We even give free accommodation. We are the only people giving the poor education."

Sami paused and his smile faded: "The people are so desperate," he said. "They are fed up with the old ways in Pakistan, with the secular parties and the army. There is so much corruption. Musharraf only fights Muslims and follows the wishes of the West. He is not interested in the people of Pakistan. So now everyone is looking for Islamic answers - and we can help provide that. Only our Islamic system gives justice."

For better or worse, the sort of change in political attitudes that Sami ul-Haq has overseen from his madrassa in Akora Khattack is being reproduced across Pakistan. An Interior Ministry report after September 11 revealed that there are now 27 times as many madrassas in the country as there were in 1947: from 245 at the time of independence, the number shot up to 6,870 in 2001. [1]

A significant proportion of these are run by, or connected to, the radical Islamist political parties such as the MMM, which under Sami's vice presidency have just imposed a Taliban-like regime on Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, banning the public performance of music and depictions of the human form. The one exception to this, bizarrely, is the image of Colonel Sanders outside the new KFC restaurant in Peshawar. This was apparently because the colonel was judged to be sporting a properly Islamic beard, and so was spared the iconoclasm imposed elsewhere.

The Islamic political parties are quite clear about the benefits that can accrue to them by controlling places of education. The headquarters of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Lahore, for example, doubles as a madrassa where 200 students receive a Koranic education with a distinctively political spin. On a visit this summer I found one maulana preaching a sermon on the subject of Musharraf's obedience to US dictates and his willingness to abandon the Taliban. A spokesman for the party told me quite explicitly: "The political transformation our madrassas are bringing about is having a massive effect on the future of Pakistan. The recent success of the Islamic parties is very much associated with the work we do in our madrassas."

Across Pakistan, the tenor of religious belief has been correspondingly radicalized: the tolerant Sufi-minded Barelvi form of Islam is now deeply out of fashion in Pakistan, overtaken by the sudden rise of the more hardline and politicized reformist Deobandi, Wahhabi and Salafi strains of the faith.

The sharp acceleration in the number of these madrassas first began under General Zia ul-Haq at the time of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, and was financed mainly by the Saudis. Although some of the madrassas so founded were little more than single rooms attached to village mosques, others are now very substantial institutions: the Dar ul-Uloom in Balochistan, for example, is now annually enrolling some 1,500 boarders and a further 1,000 day-boys. Altogether there are possibly as many as 800,000 students in Pakistan's madrassas: an entire free Islamic education system running parallel to the moribund state sector.

A mere 1.8% of Pakistan's gross domestic product is spent on government schools. As a result, 15% of the schools are without a proper building; 40% without water; 71% without electricity. There is frequent absenteeism of teachers; indeed many of these schools exist only on paper. Last year when Imran Khan, the former Pakistan cricket captain turned politician, investigated the government schools in his constituency, he found that 20% of those on the rolls did not exist at all, while 70% of those that did were semi-permanently closed.

In education Pakistan is lagging behind India in the most striking way: in India 65% of the population is literate, and the number rises every year; in the new budget, the Indian education system received a substantial boost of state funds. But in Pakistan only 42% are literate, and the proportion is falling. Instead of investing in education, the Pakistan military government is spending money on a new fleet of American F-16s for its air force. The near collapse of government schooling has meant that many of the country's poorest people who wish to improve their children's hope of advancing themselves have no option but to place the children in the madrassa system, where they are guaranteed a rigidly traditional but nonetheless free education.

Madrassas are probably now more dominant in Pakistan's educational system than they are anywhere else; but the general trend is one that is common throughout the Islamic world. In Egypt the number of teaching institutes dependent on the Islamic university of al-Azhar increased from 1,855 in 1986 to 4,314 10 years later. The Saudis have stepped up their funding so that in Tanzania alone they have been spending $1 million a year building new madrassas. In Mali madrassas now account for a quarter of the children in primary schools. [2]

Seen in this wider setting, Sami ul-Haq and his madrassas raise a number of important questions: how much are these madrassas the source of the problems that culminated in the Islamist attacks of September 11? Are madrassas simply terrorist factories? Should the West be pressing US client states like Pakistan and Egypt simply to close them down?

In the panic-stricken aftermath of the Islamist attacks on America, the answers to these questions seemed obvious. Former secretary of state Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were not know for their agreement on matters of foreign policy, but one thing that they were united on was the threat posed by madrassas. In 2003, Rumsfeld posed the question: "Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" A year later, Powell described madrassas as a breeding ground "for fundamentalist and terrorists".

Since the revelations that three of the four future British Muslim suicide bombers visited Pakistan in the year preceding the July 7 attack, the British media have been quick to follow the US line on madrassas, with the Sunday Telegraph helpfully translating the Arabic word madrassa as terrorist "training school" (it actually means merely "place of education"), while the Daily Mirror confidently asserted over a double-page spread that the three bombers had all enrolled at Pakistani "terror schools".

In actual fact, it is still uncertain whether the three bombers visited any madrassas while they were in Pakistan: madrassas only entered the debate because the bombers told their families they were going to Pakistan to pursue religious studies, just as they told them they were going to a religious conference when they set off to bomb London.

According to sources at the prime minister's offices in Downing Street there is in fact no evidence that any madrassa was visited by any members of the cell at any point on their journey. Still less is there any proof that madrassas were responsible for "brainwashing" the trio, as the British media assumed after the bombings. Instead, there is considerable evidence to show that the trio were radicalized in Yorkshire through the Islamist literature and videos that were available beneath the counter of their local Islamic bookshop. And while it is now certain that the group made contact with al-Qaeda in Pakistan, there is no reason to assume that a madrassa acted as the conduit.

In this case, as in so many others, the link between madrassas and international terrorism is far from clear-cut, and new research has been published that has challenged the much-repeated but intellectually shaky theory of madrassas being little more than al-Qaeda training schools.

It is certainly true that many madrassas are fundamentalist and literalist in their approach to the scriptures and that many subscribe to the most hardline strains of Islamic thought. Few make any effort to prepare their students to function in a modern, plural society. It is also true that some madrassas can be directly linked to Islamic radicalism and occasionally to outright civil violence.

Just as there are some yeshivas in settlements on the West Bank that have a reputation for violence against Palestinians, and Serbian monasteries that sheltered war criminals following the truce in Bosnia, so it is estimated that as many as 15% of Pakistan's madrassas preach violent jihad, while a few have been said to provide covert military training. Madrassa students took part in the Afghan and Kashmir jihads, and have been repeatedly implicated in acts of sectarian violence, especially against the Shi'ite minority in Karachi.

It is now becoming very clear, however, that producing cannon fodder for the Taliban and educating local sectarian thugs is not at all the same as producing the kind of technically literate al-Qaeda terrorist who carried out the horrifyingly sophisticated attacks on the USS Cole, the US embassies in East Africa, the World Trade Center and the London Underground.

Indeed, a number of recent studies have emphasized that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between madrassa graduates - who tend to be pious villagers from impoverished economic backgrounds, possessing little technical sophistication - and the sort of middle-class, politically literate global Salafi jihadis who plan al-Qaeda operations around the world. Most of these turn out to have secular and technical backgrounds. Neither Osama bin Laden nor any of the men who carried out the Islamist assaults on America or Britain were trained in a madrassa or was a qualified alim, or cleric.

The men who planned and carried out the September 11 attacks have often been depicted in the press as being "medieval fanatics". In fact, it would be more accurate to describe them as confused but highly educated middle-class professionals. Mohammed Atta was an architect; Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's chief of staff, was a pediatric surgeon; Ziad Jarrah, one of the founders of the Hamburg cell, was a dental student who later turned to aircraft engineering; Omar Sheikh, the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, was a product of the London School of Economics.

As the French scholar Gille Kepel puts it, the new breed of global jihadis are not the urban poor of the third world so much as "the privileged children of an unlikely marriage between Wahhabism an Silicon Valley, which [Ayman] al-Zawahiri visited in the 1990s. They were heirs not only to jihad and the umma but also to the electronic revolution and American-style globalization." [3]

This is also the conclusion drawn by the most sophisticated analysis of global jihadis yet published: Understanding Terror Networks by a former Central Intelligence Agency official, Marc Sageman. Sageman examined the records of 172 al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, and his conclusions have demolished much of the conventional wisdom about who joins jihadi groups: two thirds of his sample were middle-class and university-educated; they are generally technically minded professionals and several have a PhD. Nor are they young hotheads: their average age is 26, most of them are married, and many have children. Only two appear to be psychotic. Even the ideologues that influence them are not trained clerics: Sayyid Qutb, for example, was a journalist. Islamic terrorism, like its Christian and Jewish predecessors, is a largely bourgeois enterprise.

Peter Bergen of John Hopkins recently came to similar conclusions when he published his study of 75 Islamist terrorists involved in anti-Western attacks. According to Bergen, 53% of the terrorists had a university degree, while "only 52% of Americans have been to college." [4] Against this background, it should not have come as a surprise that the British Muslim bombers attended universities and that one drove a Mercedes.

It is true that there are several examples of radical madrassa graduates who have become involved with al-Qaeda: Maulana Masood Azhar, for example, leader of the jihadi group called Jaish-e-Muhammad and an associate of bin Laden, originally studied in the ultra-militant Binori Town madrassa in Karachi. A madrassa dropout took part in last year's bombing of Musharraf's convoy. In Indonesia, the Bali bombings were the work of the Lashkar-i-Jihad group, which partially emerged from a group of Salafi madrassas in Indonesia.

By and large, however, madrassa students simply do not have the technical expertise necessary to carry out the kind of sophisticated attacks we have recently seen led by al-Qaeda. Instead the concerns of most madrassa graduates remain more traditional: the correct fulfillment of rituals, how to wash correctly before prayers, and the proper length to grow a beard. All these matters are part of the curriculum of Koranic studies in the madrassas. The graduates are also interested in opposing what they see as unIslamic practices such as worshiping at saints' graves or attending the Shi'ite laments called marsiyas, for the death of the Prophet's son-in-law Ali at the battle of Kerbala. [5]

Their focus, in other words, is not on opposing non-Muslims or the West - the central concern of the global jihadis - so much as fostering what they see as proper Islamic behavior at home, the personal law governing which is a central subject of madrassa teachings. In contrast, few al-Qaeda agents seem to have more than the most perfunctory grasp of Islamic law or learning. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that bin Laden himself actually despises what he sees as the nit-picking juridical approach of the madrassa-educated ulema (clerics), regarding his own brand of violent Islamism as a wholly more appropriate answer to the problems of the Muslim world.

This was graphically illustrated when, shortly after September 11, bin Laden told a group of visiting Saudis that the "youths who conducted the operations did not accept any fiqh [school of Islamic law] in the popular term, but they accepted the fiqh that the Prophet Mohammed brought". It is a telling quote: bin Laden showing his impatience with legal training and the inherited structures of Islamic authority. The hijackers, he implied, were taking effective practical action rather than sitting around discussing legal texts. As such he set himself up as a challenge to the madrassas and the ulema, bypassing traditional modes of religious study and looking directly to the Koran for guidance.

A brilliant discussion of bin Laden's usurpation of the role of the madrassa-based ulema can be found in the illuminating essay Landscapes of the Jihad, by Faisal Devji, who teaches at the New School. Devji points out just how deeply unorthodox bin Laden is, with his cult of martyrs and frequent talk of dream and visions, all of which derive from popular, mystical, and Shi'ite Islamic traditions, against which the orthodox Sunni ulema have long struggled. Moreover, bin Laden and his followers "routinely attack the most venerable clerics and seminaries, accusing them of being slaves of apostate regimes ... They also issue their own legal opinions or fatwas without possessing the learning or clerical authority to do so."

All this highlights how lacking in intellectual sophistication the debate about al-Qaeda still is. Again and again, we are told that terrorism is associated with poverty and the basic, Koranic education provided by madrassas. We are told that the people who carry out this work are evil madmen who hate our wealth and our freedoms, and that no debate is possible as they "aim to wipe us out" (as one British cabinet minister told the BBC after the attacks on London). That the hostility of the Islamists may have links with US foreign policy in the Middle East, especially the Anglo-American adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, is consistently denied, despite the explicit video testimony to the contrary by both Zawahiri and Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the London bombers. [6]

In reality, al-Qaeda operatives tend to be highly educated and their aims explicitly political. Bin Laden, in his numerous communiques, has always been unambiguous about this. As he laconically remarked in his broadcast timed to coincide with the last US election, if it was freedom they were against, al-Qaeda would have attacked Sweden. The men who planned the September 11 attacks were not products of the traditional Islamic educational system, even in its most radical form. Instead they are graduates of Western-style institutions. They are not at all the proteges of the mullahs.

Obscured debate
The debate about the alleged links between madrassas and terrorism has tended to obscure both the madrassas' long histories and the differences among them. Throughout much of Islamic history, madrassas were the major source of religious and scientific learning, just as church schools and the universities were in Europe.

Between the 7th and 12th centuries, madrassas produced free-thinking luminaries such as Alberuni, Ibn Sina and al-Khwarizmi. They also produced America's bestselling poet throughout the 1990s, the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet of love and longing, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, who, it is often forgotten, was trained as a Muslim jurist, and throughout his life taught Sharia law in a madrassa in Konya. It is true that Rumi rejected the rigidity of thought and spirituality characteristic of the ulema of his day, but he did so as an insider, from within the system.

None of this should be a surprise. In the entire Koran there are only about 200 verses directly commanding believers to pray and three times that number commanding the believers to reflect, to ponder and to analyze God's magnificence in nature, plants, stars and the solar system. The oldest and greatest of all the madrassas, the al-Azhar university in Cairo, has a good claim to being the most sophisticated school in the entire Mediterranean world during the early Middle Ages. Indeed the very idea of a university in the modern sense - a place where students congregate to study a variety of subjects under a number of teachers - is generally regarded as an innovation first developed at al-Azhar.

In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi has demonstrated how terms such as having "fellows" holding a "chair", or students "reading" a subject and obtaining "degrees", as well as practices such as inaugural lectures, the oral defense, even mortar boards, tassels and academic robes, can all be traced back to the practices of madrassas.

It was in cities not far from Islamic Spain and Sicily - Salerno, Naples, Bologna and Montpellier - that the first universities in Christendom were developed, while the very first college in Europe, that of Paris, was founded by Jocius de Londoniis, a pilgrim newly returned from the Middle East. [7] Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian scholars such as Adelard of Bath would travel to the Islamic world to study the advanced learning available in the madrassas. Alvaro of Cordoba, a Mozarab, or Christian living under Muslim rule, wrote in the 14th century:
My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the work of Muslim theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads Latin commentaries on Holy scripture? At the mention of Christian books they disdainfully protest that such works are unworthy of their notice.
When the Mongol invasions destroyed the institutions of learning in the Islamic heartlands, many learned refugees fled to Delhi, turning northern India for the first time into a major center of scholarship. By the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century, the curriculum in Indian madrassas blended the learning of the Islamic Middle East with that of the teachings of Hindu India, so that Hindu and Muslim students would together study the Koran (in Arabic), the Sufi poetry of Sa'adi (in Persian), and the philosophy of Vedanta (in Sanskrit), as well as ethics, astronomy, medicine, logic, history and the natural sciences. Many of the most brilliant Hindu thinkers, including, for example, the great reformer Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), were the products of madrassas.

However, following the collapse of Islamic self-confidence that accompanied the deposition of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, in 1858, disillusioned scholars founded an influential but narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrassa at Deoband, a 100 miles north of the former Mughal capital in Delhi. Feeling that their backs were against the wall, the madrassa's founders reacted against what they saw as the degenerate ways of the old elite. The Deoband madrassa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum. [8]

It was, unfortunately, these puritanical Deobandi madrassas that spread throughout North India and Pakistan in the 20th century, and that particularly benefited from the patronage of General Zia ul-Haq and his Saudi allies in the 1980s. Ironically, the US also played an important part in this harnessing of madrassas for holy war as part of the Afghan jihad, with the CIA financing the production by the US Agency for International Development of some notably bloodthirsty madrassa textbooks "filled", according to a Washington Post report, "with violent images and militant Islamic teachings".

One page showed a picture of a jihadi carrying a gun, but with his head blown off, accompanied by a Koranic verse and a tribute to the mujahideen who were "obedient to Allah ... Such men will sacrifice their wealth and their life to impose Islamic law." When the Taliban came to power, these textbooks were distributed for use in schools. [9] At the height of the Afghan jihad, Ronald Reagan is said to have praised mujahideen madrassa students as "the moral equivalent of the founding fathers [of America]".

It is certainly true that many madrassas in Pakistan have an outdated curriculum: some still teach geometry from Euclid and medicine from Galen. Emphasis is put on rote learning rather than the critical study of the Koran, and considerable prestige is still attached to becoming a hafiz - knowing the Koran by heart. Deobandi madrassas teach that the sun revolves around the earth and some even have special seating for the invisible Islamic spirits, the djinns. [10] This is, however, by no means the case with all madrassas, some of which are surprisingly sophisticated.

In Karachi, the largest madrassa is the Dar ul-Uloom. Its green lawns resemble a cross between a five-star hotel and a rather upmarket university campus. It is clean an prosperous-looking: well-watered gardens and palm trees give onto smart, well-kept classrooms and computer rooms; all around, embalmed in scaffolding, new libraries and dormitories rise from the ground

Inside, the atmosphere was earnest and scholarly. In room after room, students sat cross-legged on carpets, reading from Korans that lay open before them, resting on low wooden bookstands. In others students were listening intently as elderly maulanas expounded to them commentaries on the meaning of verses in the Koran and the Hadiths, the traditions of the prophets. A computer room was filled with bearded men struggling with the mysteries of using Urdu and Arabic versions of Microsoft Word and Windows XP; in the senior years, I learned, all essays are expected to be typewritten on computers and handed in as printouts. Of course some other madrassas lack such equipment.

After the beheading of Daniel Pearl, I had taken the precaution of informing the British consulate about my movements; but there was nothing threatening about the Dar ul-Uloom. The students were almost all eager, friendly and intelligent, if somewhat intense. When I asked one bearded student what music he listened to on his new cassette player, he looked at me with horror: the machine was only for listening to sermons. All music was banned.

Puritanical it may be, but it is clear that the Dar ul-Uloom, like many Pakistani madrassas, performs an important service - especially in a country 58% of whose population, and 72% of whose women, are illiterate - indeed half of the population never sees the inside of a school.

Madrassas are often backward in their educational philosophy, but they provide the poor with a real hope of advancing themselves. In certain traditional subjects - such as rhetoric, logic and jurisprudence - the teaching can be excellent. And although they tend to be ultra-conservative, only a small proportion of them are militant. To close them down, without first attempting to build up the state sector, would relegate much of the population to a state of ignorance. It would also be tantamount to instructing Muslims to stop educating themselves about their religion, hardly the best strategy for winning the war for Muslim minds.

You don't have to look far from Pakistan to find a madrassa system that has effectively engaged with the problems of both militancy and educational backwardness. For although India was originally the home of the Deobandi madrassas, such colleges in India have no record of producing violent Islamists, and are strictly apolitical and quietist. Indeed, several of modern India's greatest scholars - such as the Mughal historian Muzaffar Alam of the University of Chicago - are madrassa graduates.

An important study of the madrassas of India by the Hindu scholar Yoginder Sikand, Bastions of the Believers, demonstrates how forward-looking and dynamic some madrassas can be. In the southwest Indian state of Kerala, for example, Sikand found a chain of educational institutions run by the Mujahid group of professionals and businessmen which aim to bridge the differences between modern forms of knowledge and the Islamic worldview.

The Mujahid group has been at the forefront of Muslim women's education in Kerala, and in many of their madrassas girls outnumber boys by a considerable margin. Mujahid intellectuals have written extensively about women's rights from an Islamic perspective, and Sikand quotes the Zohra Bi, the principal of one of the group's colleges: "Islam is wrongly thought of as a religion of women's oppression," she told him. "Through our work in the college we want to show that Islam actually empowers Muslim women."

This would seem to confirm that it is not madrassas per se that are the problem so much as the militant atmosphere and indoctrination taking place in a handful of notorious centers of ultra-radicalism, such as the Binori Town madrassa in Karachi, whose students are taught that jihadism is legitimate and noble. Some graduates have allegedly been involved in the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan. The question remains, however, whether Musharraf's government has the will to carry out the necessary reforms that would reproduce the success of madrassas in India.

So far attempts at reforming Pakistan's more militant madrassas have proved at best halfhearted. Immediately after the London bombings there were around 250 arrests in Pakistani madrassas, and there have been some attempts at curbing the attendance of foreign students: an estimated 1,400 non-Pakistanis have been expelled since July. Some statements have also been made about standardizing the syllabus and encouraging madrassas to teach some modern subjects.

However, the more extreme madrassas have been able to resist the enforcement of even these mild measures; recently, fewer than half of Pakistan's madrassas complied when asked to register as educational institutions with the authorities. To date, the Pakistani government, far from having found ways of curbing the excesses of the more radical madrassas, does not even possess exact statistics about the number of madrassas in the country. Moreover, the military government's close alliance with the Islamist parties, which now virtually control two of Pakistan's provinces, prevents Musharraf from acting more strongly against the extremist madrassas. As a result not even one militant madrassa has yet been closed.

Such militant madrassas are, however, likely to create more problems for Pakistan's internal security than for the safety of Western capitals. For that, as the July 7 London bombings showed, rather than blaming seminaries in Pakistan we would do better to examine the Islamic extremism blossoming on our own campuses, and the way that the excesses of American and British foreign policies can fatally alienate so many previously moderate Muslims and lead to violence at home as well as in Muslim lands.

Notes
[1] There is considerable disagreement over the number of madrassas in Pakistan and the proportion of the country's students they educate. Most authorities agree that the number has greatly increased in recent years, and a widely quoted report by the International Crisis Group in July 2002 indicated that there could be as many as 10,000 in Pakistan educating over a million and a half students. This was, however, challenged by a March 2005 World Bank report based on government census figures that puts the figure much lower and suggested that less than 1% of all Pakistanis were educated in madrassas. There now seems to be some consensus that the ICG slightly exaggerated the scale of the problem, while the World Bank report seriously underestimates it. A recent survey by Saleem Ali of the University of Vermont argues that the true figure probably stands somewhere between these two reports. See Saleem H. Ali, "Islamic Education and Conflict: Understanding the Madrassahs of Pakistan", a paper presented at the US Institute of Peace, June 24, 2005.
[2] Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, p 93; see the review by Max Rodenbeck, "The Truth About Jihad", The New York Review, August 11, 2005, which also discusses several other books mentioned in this article.
[3] Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, p 112.
[4] Peter Bergen, "The Madrasa Myth", The New York Times, June 14, 2005.
[5] See Olivier Roy, "Has Islamism a Future in Afghanistan?" in Fundamentalism Reborn: Afghanistan and the Taliban, edited by William Maley (New York University Press, 1998). See also Barbara Metcalfe's excellent "Piety, Persuasion and Politics: Deoband's Model of Social Activism", in The Empire and the Crescent: Global Implications for a New American Century, edited by Aftab Ahmad Malik (Amal, 2003), p 157.
[6] On September 1, al-Jazeera aired a video recorded by Mohommad Sidique Khan before his suicide bombing. His statement included the following words: "Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war."
[7] George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh University Press, 1981).
[8] The Deobandis have received an excellent study in Barbara Daly Metcalf's great magnum opus, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton University Press, 1982). See also Jamal Malik, Colonisation of Islam: Dissolution of Traditional Institutions in Pakistan (New Delhi: Manohar, 1988).
[9] There is a full report on these textbooks on the Washington Post Web site by Joe Stephens and David B Ottaway, "From US, the ABC's of Jihad," March 23, 2002, at www.washingtonpost .com/ac2/wp-dyn/A5339-2002Mar22 ?language=printer.
[10] See the superb discussion in Yoginder Sikand's recent Bastions of the Believers: madrassas and Islamic Education in India.

William Dalrymple is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and lives in New Delhi. His most recent book, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India, won the Wolfson Prize for history.

(Copyright 2005, New York Review of Books.)

1 comment:

Vinayak said...

Hi

Happy new year. That was a thought provoking post there.

Religion, Conversions, Tolerance, Racism, Terrorism, Hidu right Vs country's left !!, war on terror etc. leave very strong feelings and often lead to debates. Your blog made me think of the Indian context

I feel Terrorism need not be overt. It could be covert too. . My blog below is on how the society defines the "weak" and who becomes the underdog !

"..Gudia, a Muslim girl and Shri Ramdev ji, a Hindu male...".
at
http://o3.indiatimes.com/vinayak/archive/2006/01/06/403344.aspx
or
http://tinyurl.com/8nn3q

Regards

Vinayak

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Myths and madrassas
"Myths and madrassas"

By William Dalrymple in Asia Times Online, Nov. 24, 2005
(originally published in the New York Review of Books.)

Shortly before four British Muslims, three of them of Pakistani origin, blew themselves up in the London Underground on July 7, I traveled along the Indus River to Akora Khattack in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Here, straddling the noisy, truck-thundering Islamabad highway, stands the Haqqania, one of the most radical of the religious schools called madrassas.

Many of the Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, were trained at this institution. If its teachings have been blamed for inspiring the brutal, ultra-conservative incarnation of Islamic law that that regime presided over, there is no sign that the Haqqania is ashamed of its former pupils: instead, the madrassa's director, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, still proudly boasts that whenever the Taliban put out a call for fighters, he would simply close down the madrassa and send his students off to fight. In many ways, then, Akora Khattack represents everything that US policymakers most fear and dislike in this region, a bastion of religious, intellectual, and sometimes - in the form of the Taliban - military resistance to Pax Americana and all it represents.

A dust storm was blowing as we crossed the Indus just below the massive ramparts of the fortress of Attock, once the great bulwark protecting India against incursions from Afghanistan. The road was lined with poplars. In the distance towered the jagged dragons' backs of the blue Margalla Hills; a graveyard lay to one side, its green grave flags fluttering in the breeze. A few kilometers beyond the river stood a ramshackle line of buildings, all built in a crude modern concrete version of Mughal architecture. Washing was hanging up to dry from the roofs and verandas of the dormitory blocks, and in the main courtyard students were bustling around. All were male, all wore turbans, and all were heavily bearded.

Maulana Sami proved, however, to be an unexpectedly dapper and cheery figure for a man supposed to be such an icon of anti-Western hatred. He wore a blue frock coat of vaguely Dickensian cut, and his neatly trimmed beard was raffishly dyed with henna. He had a craggy face, a large outcrop of nose, and the corners of his eyes were contoured with laughter lines. I was ushered into his office and introduced to his two-year-old granddaughter, who was playing happily with a yellow helium balloon. I remarked that there did not seem to be much evidence of the Haqqania suffering from the crackdown on centers of radicalism promised by President Pervez Musharraf. Sami's face lit up:

"That is for American consumption only," he laughed cheerfully. "It is only statements to the newspapers. Nothing has happened."

"So," I asked, "You are not finding the atmosphere difficult at the moment?"

"We are in a good, strong position," replied Sami. "[President George W] Bush has woken the entire Islamic world. We are grateful to him."

Sami smiled broadly: "Our job now is propagating Islamic ideology. We give free education, free clothes and books. We even give free accommodation. We are the only people giving the poor education."

Sami paused and his smile faded: "The people are so desperate," he said. "They are fed up with the old ways in Pakistan, with the secular parties and the army. There is so much corruption. Musharraf only fights Muslims and follows the wishes of the West. He is not interested in the people of Pakistan. So now everyone is looking for Islamic answers - and we can help provide that. Only our Islamic system gives justice."

For better or worse, the sort of change in political attitudes that Sami ul-Haq has overseen from his madrassa in Akora Khattack is being reproduced across Pakistan. An Interior Ministry report after September 11 revealed that there are now 27 times as many madrassas in the country as there were in 1947: from 245 at the time of independence, the number shot up to 6,870 in 2001. [1]

A significant proportion of these are run by, or connected to, the radical Islamist political parties such as the MMM, which under Sami's vice presidency have just imposed a Taliban-like regime on Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, banning the public performance of music and depictions of the human form. The one exception to this, bizarrely, is the image of Colonel Sanders outside the new KFC restaurant in Peshawar. This was apparently because the colonel was judged to be sporting a properly Islamic beard, and so was spared the iconoclasm imposed elsewhere.

The Islamic political parties are quite clear about the benefits that can accrue to them by controlling places of education. The headquarters of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Lahore, for example, doubles as a madrassa where 200 students receive a Koranic education with a distinctively political spin. On a visit this summer I found one maulana preaching a sermon on the subject of Musharraf's obedience to US dictates and his willingness to abandon the Taliban. A spokesman for the party told me quite explicitly: "The political transformation our madrassas are bringing about is having a massive effect on the future of Pakistan. The recent success of the Islamic parties is very much associated with the work we do in our madrassas."

Across Pakistan, the tenor of religious belief has been correspondingly radicalized: the tolerant Sufi-minded Barelvi form of Islam is now deeply out of fashion in Pakistan, overtaken by the sudden rise of the more hardline and politicized reformist Deobandi, Wahhabi and Salafi strains of the faith.

The sharp acceleration in the number of these madrassas first began under General Zia ul-Haq at the time of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, and was financed mainly by the Saudis. Although some of the madrassas so founded were little more than single rooms attached to village mosques, others are now very substantial institutions: the Dar ul-Uloom in Balochistan, for example, is now annually enrolling some 1,500 boarders and a further 1,000 day-boys. Altogether there are possibly as many as 800,000 students in Pakistan's madrassas: an entire free Islamic education system running parallel to the moribund state sector.

A mere 1.8% of Pakistan's gross domestic product is spent on government schools. As a result, 15% of the schools are without a proper building; 40% without water; 71% without electricity. There is frequent absenteeism of teachers; indeed many of these schools exist only on paper. Last year when Imran Khan, the former Pakistan cricket captain turned politician, investigated the government schools in his constituency, he found that 20% of those on the rolls did not exist at all, while 70% of those that did were semi-permanently closed.

In education Pakistan is lagging behind India in the most striking way: in India 65% of the population is literate, and the number rises every year; in the new budget, the Indian education system received a substantial boost of state funds. But in Pakistan only 42% are literate, and the proportion is falling. Instead of investing in education, the Pakistan military government is spending money on a new fleet of American F-16s for its air force. The near collapse of government schooling has meant that many of the country's poorest people who wish to improve their children's hope of advancing themselves have no option but to place the children in the madrassa system, where they are guaranteed a rigidly traditional but nonetheless free education.

Madrassas are probably now more dominant in Pakistan's educational system than they are anywhere else; but the general trend is one that is common throughout the Islamic world. In Egypt the number of teaching institutes dependent on the Islamic university of al-Azhar increased from 1,855 in 1986 to 4,314 10 years later. The Saudis have stepped up their funding so that in Tanzania alone they have been spending $1 million a year building new madrassas. In Mali madrassas now account for a quarter of the children in primary schools. [2]

Seen in this wider setting, Sami ul-Haq and his madrassas raise a number of important questions: how much are these madrassas the source of the problems that culminated in the Islamist attacks of September 11? Are madrassas simply terrorist factories? Should the West be pressing US client states like Pakistan and Egypt simply to close them down?

In the panic-stricken aftermath of the Islamist attacks on America, the answers to these questions seemed obvious. Former secretary of state Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were not know for their agreement on matters of foreign policy, but one thing that they were united on was the threat posed by madrassas. In 2003, Rumsfeld posed the question: "Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" A year later, Powell described madrassas as a breeding ground "for fundamentalist and terrorists".

Since the revelations that three of the four future British Muslim suicide bombers visited Pakistan in the year preceding the July 7 attack, the British media have been quick to follow the US line on madrassas, with the Sunday Telegraph helpfully translating the Arabic word madrassa as terrorist "training school" (it actually means merely "place of education"), while the Daily Mirror confidently asserted over a double-page spread that the three bombers had all enrolled at Pakistani "terror schools".

In actual fact, it is still uncertain whether the three bombers visited any madrassas while they were in Pakistan: madrassas only entered the debate because the bombers told their families they were going to Pakistan to pursue religious studies, just as they told them they were going to a religious conference when they set off to bomb London.

According to sources at the prime minister's offices in Downing Street there is in fact no evidence that any madrassa was visited by any members of the cell at any point on their journey. Still less is there any proof that madrassas were responsible for "brainwashing" the trio, as the British media assumed after the bombings. Instead, there is considerable evidence to show that the trio were radicalized in Yorkshire through the Islamist literature and videos that were available beneath the counter of their local Islamic bookshop. And while it is now certain that the group made contact with al-Qaeda in Pakistan, there is no reason to assume that a madrassa acted as the conduit.

In this case, as in so many others, the link between madrassas and international terrorism is far from clear-cut, and new research has been published that has challenged the much-repeated but intellectually shaky theory of madrassas being little more than al-Qaeda training schools.

It is certainly true that many madrassas are fundamentalist and literalist in their approach to the scriptures and that many subscribe to the most hardline strains of Islamic thought. Few make any effort to prepare their students to function in a modern, plural society. It is also true that some madrassas can be directly linked to Islamic radicalism and occasionally to outright civil violence.

Just as there are some yeshivas in settlements on the West Bank that have a reputation for violence against Palestinians, and Serbian monasteries that sheltered war criminals following the truce in Bosnia, so it is estimated that as many as 15% of Pakistan's madrassas preach violent jihad, while a few have been said to provide covert military training. Madrassa students took part in the Afghan and Kashmir jihads, and have been repeatedly implicated in acts of sectarian violence, especially against the Shi'ite minority in Karachi.

It is now becoming very clear, however, that producing cannon fodder for the Taliban and educating local sectarian thugs is not at all the same as producing the kind of technically literate al-Qaeda terrorist who carried out the horrifyingly sophisticated attacks on the USS Cole, the US embassies in East Africa, the World Trade Center and the London Underground.

Indeed, a number of recent studies have emphasized that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between madrassa graduates - who tend to be pious villagers from impoverished economic backgrounds, possessing little technical sophistication - and the sort of middle-class, politically literate global Salafi jihadis who plan al-Qaeda operations around the world. Most of these turn out to have secular and technical backgrounds. Neither Osama bin Laden nor any of the men who carried out the Islamist assaults on America or Britain were trained in a madrassa or was a qualified alim, or cleric.

The men who planned and carried out the September 11 attacks have often been depicted in the press as being "medieval fanatics". In fact, it would be more accurate to describe them as confused but highly educated middle-class professionals. Mohammed Atta was an architect; Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's chief of staff, was a pediatric surgeon; Ziad Jarrah, one of the founders of the Hamburg cell, was a dental student who later turned to aircraft engineering; Omar Sheikh, the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, was a product of the London School of Economics.

As the French scholar Gille Kepel puts it, the new breed of global jihadis are not the urban poor of the third world so much as "the privileged children of an unlikely marriage between Wahhabism an Silicon Valley, which [Ayman] al-Zawahiri visited in the 1990s. They were heirs not only to jihad and the umma but also to the electronic revolution and American-style globalization." [3]

This is also the conclusion drawn by the most sophisticated analysis of global jihadis yet published: Understanding Terror Networks by a former Central Intelligence Agency official, Marc Sageman. Sageman examined the records of 172 al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, and his conclusions have demolished much of the conventional wisdom about who joins jihadi groups: two thirds of his sample were middle-class and university-educated; they are generally technically minded professionals and several have a PhD. Nor are they young hotheads: their average age is 26, most of them are married, and many have children. Only two appear to be psychotic. Even the ideologues that influence them are not trained clerics: Sayyid Qutb, for example, was a journalist. Islamic terrorism, like its Christian and Jewish predecessors, is a largely bourgeois enterprise.

Peter Bergen of John Hopkins recently came to similar conclusions when he published his study of 75 Islamist terrorists involved in anti-Western attacks. According to Bergen, 53% of the terrorists had a university degree, while "only 52% of Americans have been to college." [4] Against this background, it should not have come as a surprise that the British Muslim bombers attended universities and that one drove a Mercedes.

It is true that there are several examples of radical madrassa graduates who have become involved with al-Qaeda: Maulana Masood Azhar, for example, leader of the jihadi group called Jaish-e-Muhammad and an associate of bin Laden, originally studied in the ultra-militant Binori Town madrassa in Karachi. A madrassa dropout took part in last year's bombing of Musharraf's convoy. In Indonesia, the Bali bombings were the work of the Lashkar-i-Jihad group, which partially emerged from a group of Salafi madrassas in Indonesia.

By and large, however, madrassa students simply do not have the technical expertise necessary to carry out the kind of sophisticated attacks we have recently seen led by al-Qaeda. Instead the concerns of most madrassa graduates remain more traditional: the correct fulfillment of rituals, how to wash correctly before prayers, and the proper length to grow a beard. All these matters are part of the curriculum of Koranic studies in the madrassas. The graduates are also interested in opposing what they see as unIslamic practices such as worshiping at saints' graves or attending the Shi'ite laments called marsiyas, for the death of the Prophet's son-in-law Ali at the battle of Kerbala. [5]

Their focus, in other words, is not on opposing non-Muslims or the West - the central concern of the global jihadis - so much as fostering what they see as proper Islamic behavior at home, the personal law governing which is a central subject of madrassa teachings. In contrast, few al-Qaeda agents seem to have more than the most perfunctory grasp of Islamic law or learning. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that bin Laden himself actually despises what he sees as the nit-picking juridical approach of the madrassa-educated ulema (clerics), regarding his own brand of violent Islamism as a wholly more appropriate answer to the problems of the Muslim world.

This was graphically illustrated when, shortly after September 11, bin Laden told a group of visiting Saudis that the "youths who conducted the operations did not accept any fiqh [school of Islamic law] in the popular term, but they accepted the fiqh that the Prophet Mohammed brought". It is a telling quote: bin Laden showing his impatience with legal training and the inherited structures of Islamic authority. The hijackers, he implied, were taking effective practical action rather than sitting around discussing legal texts. As such he set himself up as a challenge to the madrassas and the ulema, bypassing traditional modes of religious study and looking directly to the Koran for guidance.

A brilliant discussion of bin Laden's usurpation of the role of the madrassa-based ulema can be found in the illuminating essay Landscapes of the Jihad, by Faisal Devji, who teaches at the New School. Devji points out just how deeply unorthodox bin Laden is, with his cult of martyrs and frequent talk of dream and visions, all of which derive from popular, mystical, and Shi'ite Islamic traditions, against which the orthodox Sunni ulema have long struggled. Moreover, bin Laden and his followers "routinely attack the most venerable clerics and seminaries, accusing them of being slaves of apostate regimes ... They also issue their own legal opinions or fatwas without possessing the learning or clerical authority to do so."

All this highlights how lacking in intellectual sophistication the debate about al-Qaeda still is. Again and again, we are told that terrorism is associated with poverty and the basic, Koranic education provided by madrassas. We are told that the people who carry out this work are evil madmen who hate our wealth and our freedoms, and that no debate is possible as they "aim to wipe us out" (as one British cabinet minister told the BBC after the attacks on London). That the hostility of the Islamists may have links with US foreign policy in the Middle East, especially the Anglo-American adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, is consistently denied, despite the explicit video testimony to the contrary by both Zawahiri and Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the London bombers. [6]

In reality, al-Qaeda operatives tend to be highly educated and their aims explicitly political. Bin Laden, in his numerous communiques, has always been unambiguous about this. As he laconically remarked in his broadcast timed to coincide with the last US election, if it was freedom they were against, al-Qaeda would have attacked Sweden. The men who planned the September 11 attacks were not products of the traditional Islamic educational system, even in its most radical form. Instead they are graduates of Western-style institutions. They are not at all the proteges of the mullahs.

Obscured debate
The debate about the alleged links between madrassas and terrorism has tended to obscure both the madrassas' long histories and the differences among them. Throughout much of Islamic history, madrassas were the major source of religious and scientific learning, just as church schools and the universities were in Europe.

Between the 7th and 12th centuries, madrassas produced free-thinking luminaries such as Alberuni, Ibn Sina and al-Khwarizmi. They also produced America's bestselling poet throughout the 1990s, the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet of love and longing, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, who, it is often forgotten, was trained as a Muslim jurist, and throughout his life taught Sharia law in a madrassa in Konya. It is true that Rumi rejected the rigidity of thought and spirituality characteristic of the ulema of his day, but he did so as an insider, from within the system.

None of this should be a surprise. In the entire Koran there are only about 200 verses directly commanding believers to pray and three times that number commanding the believers to reflect, to ponder and to analyze God's magnificence in nature, plants, stars and the solar system. The oldest and greatest of all the madrassas, the al-Azhar university in Cairo, has a good claim to being the most sophisticated school in the entire Mediterranean world during the early Middle Ages. Indeed the very idea of a university in the modern sense - a place where students congregate to study a variety of subjects under a number of teachers - is generally regarded as an innovation first developed at al-Azhar.

In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi has demonstrated how terms such as having "fellows" holding a "chair", or students "reading" a subject and obtaining "degrees", as well as practices such as inaugural lectures, the oral defense, even mortar boards, tassels and academic robes, can all be traced back to the practices of madrassas.

It was in cities not far from Islamic Spain and Sicily - Salerno, Naples, Bologna and Montpellier - that the first universities in Christendom were developed, while the very first college in Europe, that of Paris, was founded by Jocius de Londoniis, a pilgrim newly returned from the Middle East. [7] Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian scholars such as Adelard of Bath would travel to the Islamic world to study the advanced learning available in the madrassas. Alvaro of Cordoba, a Mozarab, or Christian living under Muslim rule, wrote in the 14th century:
My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the work of Muslim theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads Latin commentaries on Holy scripture? At the mention of Christian books they disdainfully protest that such works are unworthy of their notice.
When the Mongol invasions destroyed the institutions of learning in the Islamic heartlands, many learned refugees fled to Delhi, turning northern India for the first time into a major center of scholarship. By the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century, the curriculum in Indian madrassas blended the learning of the Islamic Middle East with that of the teachings of Hindu India, so that Hindu and Muslim students would together study the Koran (in Arabic), the Sufi poetry of Sa'adi (in Persian), and the philosophy of Vedanta (in Sanskrit), as well as ethics, astronomy, medicine, logic, history and the natural sciences. Many of the most brilliant Hindu thinkers, including, for example, the great reformer Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), were the products of madrassas.

However, following the collapse of Islamic self-confidence that accompanied the deposition of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, in 1858, disillusioned scholars founded an influential but narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrassa at Deoband, a 100 miles north of the former Mughal capital in Delhi. Feeling that their backs were against the wall, the madrassa's founders reacted against what they saw as the degenerate ways of the old elite. The Deoband madrassa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum. [8]

It was, unfortunately, these puritanical Deobandi madrassas that spread throughout North India and Pakistan in the 20th century, and that particularly benefited from the patronage of General Zia ul-Haq and his Saudi allies in the 1980s. Ironically, the US also played an important part in this harnessing of madrassas for holy war as part of the Afghan jihad, with the CIA financing the production by the US Agency for International Development of some notably bloodthirsty madrassa textbooks "filled", according to a Washington Post report, "with violent images and militant Islamic teachings".

One page showed a picture of a jihadi carrying a gun, but with his head blown off, accompanied by a Koranic verse and a tribute to the mujahideen who were "obedient to Allah ... Such men will sacrifice their wealth and their life to impose Islamic law." When the Taliban came to power, these textbooks were distributed for use in schools. [9] At the height of the Afghan jihad, Ronald Reagan is said to have praised mujahideen madrassa students as "the moral equivalent of the founding fathers [of America]".

It is certainly true that many madrassas in Pakistan have an outdated curriculum: some still teach geometry from Euclid and medicine from Galen. Emphasis is put on rote learning rather than the critical study of the Koran, and considerable prestige is still attached to becoming a hafiz - knowing the Koran by heart. Deobandi madrassas teach that the sun revolves around the earth and some even have special seating for the invisible Islamic spirits, the djinns. [10] This is, however, by no means the case with all madrassas, some of which are surprisingly sophisticated.

In Karachi, the largest madrassa is the Dar ul-Uloom. Its green lawns resemble a cross between a five-star hotel and a rather upmarket university campus. It is clean an prosperous-looking: well-watered gardens and palm trees give onto smart, well-kept classrooms and computer rooms; all around, embalmed in scaffolding, new libraries and dormitories rise from the ground

Inside, the atmosphere was earnest and scholarly. In room after room, students sat cross-legged on carpets, reading from Korans that lay open before them, resting on low wooden bookstands. In others students were listening intently as elderly maulanas expounded to them commentaries on the meaning of verses in the Koran and the Hadiths, the traditions of the prophets. A computer room was filled with bearded men struggling with the mysteries of using Urdu and Arabic versions of Microsoft Word and Windows XP; in the senior years, I learned, all essays are expected to be typewritten on computers and handed in as printouts. Of course some other madrassas lack such equipment.

After the beheading of Daniel Pearl, I had taken the precaution of informing the British consulate about my movements; but there was nothing threatening about the Dar ul-Uloom. The students were almost all eager, friendly and intelligent, if somewhat intense. When I asked one bearded student what music he listened to on his new cassette player, he looked at me with horror: the machine was only for listening to sermons. All music was banned.

Puritanical it may be, but it is clear that the Dar ul-Uloom, like many Pakistani madrassas, performs an important service - especially in a country 58% of whose population, and 72% of whose women, are illiterate - indeed half of the population never sees the inside of a school.

Madrassas are often backward in their educational philosophy, but they provide the poor with a real hope of advancing themselves. In certain traditional subjects - such as rhetoric, logic and jurisprudence - the teaching can be excellent. And although they tend to be ultra-conservative, only a small proportion of them are militant. To close them down, without first attempting to build up the state sector, would relegate much of the population to a state of ignorance. It would also be tantamount to instructing Muslims to stop educating themselves about their religion, hardly the best strategy for winning the war for Muslim minds.

You don't have to look far from Pakistan to find a madrassa system that has effectively engaged with the problems of both militancy and educational backwardness. For although India was originally the home of the Deobandi madrassas, such colleges in India have no record of producing violent Islamists, and are strictly apolitical and quietist. Indeed, several of modern India's greatest scholars - such as the Mughal historian Muzaffar Alam of the University of Chicago - are madrassa graduates.

An important study of the madrassas of India by the Hindu scholar Yoginder Sikand, Bastions of the Believers, demonstrates how forward-looking and dynamic some madrassas can be. In the southwest Indian state of Kerala, for example, Sikand found a chain of educational institutions run by the Mujahid group of professionals and businessmen which aim to bridge the differences between modern forms of knowledge and the Islamic worldview.

The Mujahid group has been at the forefront of Muslim women's education in Kerala, and in many of their madrassas girls outnumber boys by a considerable margin. Mujahid intellectuals have written extensively about women's rights from an Islamic perspective, and Sikand quotes the Zohra Bi, the principal of one of the group's colleges: "Islam is wrongly thought of as a religion of women's oppression," she told him. "Through our work in the college we want to show that Islam actually empowers Muslim women."

This would seem to confirm that it is not madrassas per se that are the problem so much as the militant atmosphere and indoctrination taking place in a handful of notorious centers of ultra-radicalism, such as the Binori Town madrassa in Karachi, whose students are taught that jihadism is legitimate and noble. Some graduates have allegedly been involved in the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan. The question remains, however, whether Musharraf's government has the will to carry out the necessary reforms that would reproduce the success of madrassas in India.

So far attempts at reforming Pakistan's more militant madrassas have proved at best halfhearted. Immediately after the London bombings there were around 250 arrests in Pakistani madrassas, and there have been some attempts at curbing the attendance of foreign students: an estimated 1,400 non-Pakistanis have been expelled since July. Some statements have also been made about standardizing the syllabus and encouraging madrassas to teach some modern subjects.

However, the more extreme madrassas have been able to resist the enforcement of even these mild measures; recently, fewer than half of Pakistan's madrassas complied when asked to register as educational institutions with the authorities. To date, the Pakistani government, far from having found ways of curbing the excesses of the more radical madrassas, does not even possess exact statistics about the number of madrassas in the country. Moreover, the military government's close alliance with the Islamist parties, which now virtually control two of Pakistan's provinces, prevents Musharraf from acting more strongly against the extremist madrassas. As a result not even one militant madrassa has yet been closed.

Such militant madrassas are, however, likely to create more problems for Pakistan's internal security than for the safety of Western capitals. For that, as the July 7 London bombings showed, rather than blaming seminaries in Pakistan we would do better to examine the Islamic extremism blossoming on our own campuses, and the way that the excesses of American and British foreign policies can fatally alienate so many previously moderate Muslims and lead to violence at home as well as in Muslim lands.

Notes
[1] There is considerable disagreement over the number of madrassas in Pakistan and the proportion of the country's students they educate. Most authorities agree that the number has greatly increased in recent years, and a widely quoted report by the International Crisis Group in July 2002 indicated that there could be as many as 10,000 in Pakistan educating over a million and a half students. This was, however, challenged by a March 2005 World Bank report based on government census figures that puts the figure much lower and suggested that less than 1% of all Pakistanis were educated in madrassas. There now seems to be some consensus that the ICG slightly exaggerated the scale of the problem, while the World Bank report seriously underestimates it. A recent survey by Saleem Ali of the University of Vermont argues that the true figure probably stands somewhere between these two reports. See Saleem H. Ali, "Islamic Education and Conflict: Understanding the Madrassahs of Pakistan", a paper presented at the US Institute of Peace, June 24, 2005.
[2] Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, p 93; see the review by Max Rodenbeck, "The Truth About Jihad", The New York Review, August 11, 2005, which also discusses several other books mentioned in this article.
[3] Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, p 112.
[4] Peter Bergen, "The Madrasa Myth", The New York Times, June 14, 2005.
[5] See Olivier Roy, "Has Islamism a Future in Afghanistan?" in Fundamentalism Reborn: Afghanistan and the Taliban, edited by William Maley (New York University Press, 1998). See also Barbara Metcalfe's excellent "Piety, Persuasion and Politics: Deoband's Model of Social Activism", in The Empire and the Crescent: Global Implications for a New American Century, edited by Aftab Ahmad Malik (Amal, 2003), p 157.
[6] On September 1, al-Jazeera aired a video recorded by Mohommad Sidique Khan before his suicide bombing. His statement included the following words: "Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war."
[7] George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh University Press, 1981).
[8] The Deobandis have received an excellent study in Barbara Daly Metcalf's great magnum opus, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton University Press, 1982). See also Jamal Malik, Colonisation of Islam: Dissolution of Traditional Institutions in Pakistan (New Delhi: Manohar, 1988).
[9] There is a full report on these textbooks on the Washington Post Web site by Joe Stephens and David B Ottaway, "From US, the ABC's of Jihad," March 23, 2002, at www.washingtonpost .com/ac2/wp-dyn/A5339-2002Mar22 ?language=printer.
[10] See the superb discussion in Yoginder Sikand's recent Bastions of the Believers: madrassas and Islamic Education in India.

William Dalrymple is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and lives in New Delhi. His most recent book, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India, won the Wolfson Prize for history.

(Copyright 2005, New York Review of Books.)

1 comment:

Vinayak said...

Hi

Happy new year. That was a thought provoking post there.

Religion, Conversions, Tolerance, Racism, Terrorism, Hidu right Vs country's left !!, war on terror etc. leave very strong feelings and often lead to debates. Your blog made me think of the Indian context

I feel Terrorism need not be overt. It could be covert too. . My blog below is on how the society defines the "weak" and who becomes the underdog !

"..Gudia, a Muslim girl and Shri Ramdev ji, a Hindu male...".
at
http://o3.indiatimes.com/vinayak/archive/2006/01/06/403344.aspx
or
http://tinyurl.com/8nn3q

Regards

Vinayak