How one organization is transforming Pakistani madrasas

STR AFP/GETTY IMAGES In this file photograph taken on September 26, 2008, fighters with Afghanistan’s Taliban militia stand on a … Continued



In this file photograph taken on September 26, 2008, fighters with Afghanistan’s Taliban militia stand on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak province, west of Kabul.

For the past seven years, our NGO (The International Center for Religion & Diplomacy) has been working in Pakistan to reform the madrasas, including those that gave birth to the Taliban.

Few in the West are mindful of the illustrious history of these religious schools; but from the Middle Ages through the sixteenth century, they were without peer as institutions of higher learning. It was only European exposure to them that led to the creation of our own university system in the West. In a later reaction to British colonialism, however, and out of a fear of losing their Muslim identity, the madrasas purged their curriculums of all disciplines that they deemed to be Western or secular in nature-to the point where the majority of them today focus solely on rote memorization of the Koran and the study of Islamic principles.

Our first goal in this project has been to expand the curricula to include the physical and social sciences, with a strong emphasis on religious tolerance and human rights (particularly women’s rights). We don’t touch their religious core, but our assumption is that a good job on these two fronts can smooth a lot of the rough edges. Our experience to date has confirmed the validity of this assumption.

Our second goal has been to transform the pedagogy in order to create critical thinking skills among the students. This is important because as things currently stand, these students have no ability to question or challenge the overtures of extremists who all-too-often try to recruit them to their cause.

Our efforts to date have been well received and have thus far involved over 2,700 madrasa leaders from more than 1,600 madrasas throughout Pakistan. Because most of our work has been in the more radical areas, we feel we have sufficient momentum to expand the effort across the entire country and are seeking the necessary resources to do so.

This progress stands in marked contrast to the failed attempts of others to reform these schools, including the government of Pakistan (GOP). There are several reasons for this. First, we are conducting the project in such a way that the madrasa leaders feel it is their reform effort and not something imposed from the outside (which means they have significant ownership in the change process). Contrary to the negative stereotypes presented in the press, many madrasa leaders are quite bright and come up with good ideas. For example, the lead paragraph in the Teacher Awareness Module that we teach in our workshops was crafted by a madrasa leader:

“I have come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. My personal approach creates the climate. My daily mood makes the weather. As a teacher, I have tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it’s my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

Powerful stuff!

Second, we inspire them with their own heritage, not only that of their own institutions, but going back to the early period of Islam when Muslims accounted for a number of the pioneering breakthroughs in the arts and sciences, including religious tolerance (at a time when Christianity was woefully intolerant). Once the madrasa leaders begin internalizing this, they start walking a little taller and thinking that perhaps they too can do better.

Third, we ground all suggested change in Islamic principles so they can feel they are becoming better Muslims in the process. And they are.

Finally, we operate from a posture of humility driven by our awareness that we (the U.S.) were complicit in planting the seeds of jihad in the madrasas in the first place in order to grow holy warriors to evict what we saw as the “godless Soviets” out of Afghanistan. After the Soviets left, so did we; and the madrasas have continued doing what we trained them to do. Yet one more example of the law of unintended consequences.

Most madrasa leaders also serve as imams in the local mosques, and their Friday sermons have an enormous influence within their communities. The importance of working with these leaders cannot be overstated, nor can its strategic impact.

Douglas Johnston is president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. His new book is Religion, Terror, and Error: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement.

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