Pakistani columnist Husain Haqqani has an excellent article in the November/December 2003 issue of Foreign Policy about the history and more recent changes in the development of Islamic Madrassah (also spelled Madrasa or Madrassa) religious schools.
The remarkable transformation and global spread of Madrasas during the 1980s and 1990s owes much to geopolitics, sectarian struggles, and technology, but the schools’ influence and staying power derive from deep-rooted socioeconomic conditions that have so far proved resistant to change. Now, with the prospect of Madrasas churning out tens of thousands of would-be militant graduates each year, calls for reform are growing. But anyone who hopes for change in the schools’ curriculum, approach, or mind-set is likely to be disappointed. In some ways, Madrasas are at the center of a civil war of ideas in the Islamic world. Westernized and usually affluent Muslims lack an interest in religious matters, but religious scholars, marginalized by modernization, seek to assert their own relevance by insisting on orthodoxy. A regular education costs money and is often inaccessible to the poor, but Madrasas are generally free. Poor students attending Madrasas find it easy to believe that the West, loyal to uncaring and aloof leaders, is responsible for their misery and that Islam as practiced in its earliest form can deliver them.
Saudi Arabia responded to the attempt of the Iranians to use Madrassah schools against Arab leaders and instead tried to redirect Sunni religious fervor to be against both Shiism and the West.
The Iranian Revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, both in 1979, inspired a profound shift in the Muslim world—and in the Madrasas. Iran’s mullahs had managed to overthrow the shah and take power, undermining the idea that religious education was useless in worldly matters. Although Iranians belong to the minority Shiite sect of Islam, and their Madrasas have always had a more political character than Sunni seminaries, the image of men in turbans and robes running a country provided a powerful demonstration effect and politicized Madrasas everywhere.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime promised to export its revolutionary Shiite ideas to other Muslim states. Khomeini invited teachers and students from Madrasas in other countries to Tehran for conferences and parades, and he offered money and military training to radical Islamic movements. Iranians argued that the corrupt Arab monarchies must be overthrown just as Iranians had overthrown the shah. Iran’s Arab rivals decided to fight revolutionary Shiite fundamentalism with their own version of Sunni fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries began to pour money into Sunni Madrasas that rejected the Shiite theology of Iran, fund ulema who declared the Shiite Iranian model unacceptable to Sunnis, and call for a fight against Western decadence rather than Muslim rulers.
One reason why I argue in favor of many strategies for reducing the threat of Islamic terrorism that are rarely mentioned in the mainstream debate is that in my view the causes of the terrorism are deep-seated and very resistant to change. We can't just up and order a major religion to go through a huge intellectual change just because the adherents of that religion are reacting to modernity in ways that create growing threats to us. Nor can we end the threat simply by carrying out a series of military conquests.
We need to be inspired by Sun Tzu's The Art Of War and pursue more strategies of indirection such as funding scholars to do critical research on the origins of Islam, funding basic researchers to look for breakthroughs that will enable the development of technologies that obsolesce Middle Eastern oil, and the adoption of aggressive immigration and border control policies that drastically reduce the number of Muslims that can travel to the West. Because of our rather limited ability to change the development of Muslim societies in a positive fashion we face a situation analogous to a Cold War with a need for long term containment. There are no quick solutions.
|Share |||By Randall Parker at 2003 December 03 12:55 PM Civilizations Clash Of|