Not long after 9/11, journalist Husain Haqqani visited an Islamic school in Pakistan and asked a nine-year-old student if he would like to learn mathematics. The student answered: “There are many references to how many times Allah has multiplied the reward of jihad. If I knew how to multiply, I would be able to calculate the reward I will earn in the hereafter.”
No one knows what percentage of Islamic schools, called madrasas, are instilling children with a longing for violent jihad. Most, by far, are not. But in Pakistan alone, where extremist schools are thought to make up one-tenth of all madrasas, terrorist organizations can find as many as 200,000 ideologically sympathetic recruits. And so long as extremist schools around the globe are teaching their students to celebrate violence and hate, we’re going to have to teach ours about dirty bombs and duct tape.
Why would parents send their children to these academies of intolerance? Some do so out of conviction. But even in the most radicalized regions of Pakistan, the chief justification is often more mundane: money. Across much of the country, government schools are scarce, usually charge fees, and are wracked with corruption and poor performance. For-profit private schools emphasizing academic subjects are numerous and growing rapidly, but they are beyond the means of the very poorest families.
That’s where madrasas come in. Because they draw the bulk of their funding from foreign donations, most madrasas not only offer free instruction, but free room and board as well. One poor farmer, interviewed last year by USAID workers, said he couldn’t afford public schools or fee-charging private ones, so he sent one of his sons to a madrasa. The boy memorized some Koranic verses in Arabic, which he does not understand, but learned no Urdu, the country’s official language. He was, however, given food and a new shirt.
Several Western nations, including the United States, have adopted a two-pronged strategy for dealing with Islamist indoctrination: encouraging governments in the Muslim world to moderate the curricula employed in radical schools, and funding the expansion of free public education to attract families away from those schools.
Neither approach is likely to succeed. All past efforts to moderate the teachings of Pakistan’s madrasas have failed. And even if these schools modernized their curricula, they would likely remain ideologically militant-say, using mathematics to count the benefits of jihad. What’s more, the public schools in countries like Pakistan can be as guilty of fomenting religious intolerance, as are the radical madrasas. According to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a Pakistani think tank, the nation’s public school textbooks “tell lies, create hate, incite for jehad [sic] and shahadat [martyrdom in the name of Allah], and much more.” Your tax dollars at work.
Realistically, no policy will do away with indoctrination overnight, but there are promising alternatives to the current approach. First, throw open the door to trade with developing nations so that more families can earn enough to pay for their own children’s education. Second, redirect our private giving (which dwarfs official U.S. foreign aid) toward start-up capital and operating subsidies for fee-charging schools.
Unbeknownst to most Westerners, for-profit schools exist throughout the developing world, and are usually the most academically effective, responsive, best maintained, and efficiently run options available. Nearly 30 percent of Pakistani students, including many among the poor, are already enrolled in these schools. In Lahore, families earning less than $1 per person per day are almost as likely to send their children to secular private schools as to public ones.
Nevertheless, fee-charging education remains beyond the reach of many families, particularly in rural areas. U.S. trade barriers exacerbate this problem by depressing the incomes of working families in developing countries. Our protectionism simultaneously drives families into the arms of free madrasas and gives them a reason to resent the United States. Ironically, it hurts us economically as well, by propping up our uncompetitive industries at the expense of our more successful ones.
In addition to opening our markets, we can make much more productive use of our foreign giving, channeling our vast private contributions toward the expansion of secular fee-charging education. Programs that partially or temporarily subsidize fee-charging schools have dramatically increased both girls’ and boys’ enrollment in some of the poorest and most religiously conservative areas of Pakistan.
Can these programs have a real impact? The Jihadis in Pakistan’s Northern Areas seem to think so: They’re so worried about growing competition from secular schools that they’ve torched eight of them in the past week.