The United States and Madrassas
How did the United States enable today’s Muslim fundamentalists to strike at the world’s most powerful nation?
September 21, 2003
For many decades, international aid programs from the United States and the West have contained components under the broad rubric of education reform. Many millions have been spent — and unfortunately often misspent.
But consider this painful but truthful concept: If the goal is to create at least a form of education for a state or region where there are simply no schools for children, then there is one notion of education reform that has unfortunately but successfully moved to fill this void. Created by Islamic fundamentalists, the madrassas are schools that have been co-opted by militants to teach hatred and violence at the expense of academics.
The plan: Flood rural Afghanistan with millions of schoolbooks preaching and teaching Islamic militancy. Books reportedly filled with language celebrating jihad (holy war), violent images of war.
Primers from which boys learned math by counting pictures of soldiers, tanks, guns and land mines.
The Purpose: Create a generation of militant Islamic freedom fighters — another term might be terrorists — who would rise up and run the godless Soviet communist forces out of Afghanistan. Which they did. Then they stuck around.
Those militant Islamic boys of the mid-1980s were the men in their twenties and thirties in Afghanistan when the Taliban was ruling that nation — and al Qaeda was using it as a safe base of operations.
Indeed, the nation was being run in ways that should surely have appealed to those boys who had been made militant by the United States — supplied militant Muslim textbooks. So perhaps in that sense the Reagan-era plan can be considered as one foreign aid program that clearly produced results.
Those Reagan-era texts, first distributed when Afghanistan was mainly a problem for the Soviet Union, went on to become in the post-Soviet era the Taliban’s schoolbooks of choice.
America’s books were widely used in Afghanistan, but we didn’t find out about it until March 23, 2002, when the Washington Post broke the story of the Reagan Administration’s inane plan to “educate” a generation of Afghan youths.
The books were still being shipped to Afghanistan until President Clinton’s advisers halted the program in 1994. In January, 2002, the United Nations education agency, UNICEF, finally began printing new demilitarized textbooks.
This was not the sort of secret story that the United States news media had to go all the way to Afghanistan to discover. Reporters could have learned of it back in the 1980s-right in America’s heartland.
For the U.S. Agency for International Development gave $51 million in grants to the University of Nebraska-Omaha and its Center for Afghanistan Studies to develop these texts that preached of jihad and the glory of weapons.
Interestingly, the Post report gave only passing mention to the militant, freedom-fighter-molding nature of the Islamic texts.
The story focused mainly on the very Washingtonian angle of whether this never-disclosed program had violated U.S. constitutional prohibition on government money being used for a religious purpose.
Ever since the events of September 11, 2001, the United States has declared that America’s war on terrorism extends to all who harbor, aid and abet terrorism.
And top U.S. officials sharply criticized the fact that wealthy Muslims have financed the private madrassas in the Middle East and elsewhere that foster hatred of Israel and promote militancy and Jihad as noble pursuits.
The U.S. State Department had been quite open in voicing its concerns about the indoctrination teachings of the madrassa schools in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan — even though its own U.S. Agency for International Development was funding the foreign aid program that was essentially schooling this new generation of terrorists.
And on January 17, 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared in a press conference in Islamabad: “President Bush asked me just the other day, ‘How can we help with the reformation of their school system, with making sure the madrassas are now educating youngsters well as indoctrinating youngsters?”
Powell said the United States would help Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, reform his country's education system.
In the global war against all who harbor, aid or abet terrorism Washington’s sleuths unfortunately don’t have far to look to find those who once fed today’s militant Afghani Muslims the steady dietary mix of militarism and radical Islam.
In this bizarre footnote to American folly, U.S. historians can take their cue from the late but timeless sage of the comic pages, Walt Kelly, whose character Pogo once explained: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Is it too late to turn this coming generation of militant Muslims around? “You can,” says Rohan Gunaratna, “but it is extremely difficult to change those who have graduated through those madrassas, because when those people come out of those madrassas, they also go to an environment of poverty, of hopelessness.
And that is why it is so important that if we are going to end or reduce terrorism in the future, we must economically develop those areas.
Otherwise those people will have no hope that — instead of going to the battlefield and dying — that they can lead a normal life.
You see, most terrorists I have met, they are victims of their own circumstances. There are some very good people who have become bad people because of the circumstances.
Even a good person like you can do something bad, in a bad circumstance. So it is the circumstance that has driven many people towards terrorism.
That is why when we fight terrorism we must keep it always in our mind to create an opportunity for those terrorists to become normal people, for rehabilitation.”
“Al-Qaeda is continuing to recruit from the madrassas — the Islamic schools in Pakistan. Pakistan has already requested the United States for assistance to reform its education system.
The United States must reform the education system in that country and in Algeria, for instance. Algeria has requested for assistance from the United States.
“As long as you permit the madrassas to function, the madrassas will be penetrated by Islamic groups. In Afghanistan the United States will kill three to five members of al-Qaeda in a week.
But in those madrassas in a week, they are producing another 50 members who are willing to go and do a Holy War, or Jihad against the United States."
Author and syndicated journalist Martin Schram has been a Washington journalist, editor and author for more than three decades. He is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and appears frequently as a commentator on various television networks. Mr. Schram is the author of five books and is the co-editor of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Mandate for […]