Busting Pakistan’s madrassa myth

Madrassas still attract the lion’s share of attention in the media when it comes to explaining the root causes of militancy in Pakistan, but this near exclusive emphasis on Pakistan’s religious seminaries is misguided. Recent evidence on schooling in Pakistan all points to the conclusion that while madrassas do have a role, they are less ...

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

Madrassas still attract the lion's share of attention in the media when it comes to explaining the root causes of militancy in Pakistan, but this near exclusive emphasis on Pakistan's religious seminaries is misguided. Recent evidence on schooling in Pakistan all points to the conclusion that while madrassas do have a role, they are less important than is often assumed. The madrassa focus is unfortunate because it overshadows the much broader challenge and potential security implications of Pakistan's failing schools.

Under the 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, the U.S. committed to tripling economic assistance to Pakistan. For FY2010, a total of $334.7 million has been set aside for Pakistani education, $264.7 million of which is allocated to basic education. U.S. policymakers are poised to start spending these taxpayer dollars, and should look closely at why and how Pakistan's schools are failing -- and the security implications of these shortcomings.

Madrassas still attract the lion’s share of attention in the media when it comes to explaining the root causes of militancy in Pakistan, but this near exclusive emphasis on Pakistan’s religious seminaries is misguided. Recent evidence on schooling in Pakistan all points to the conclusion that while madrassas do have a role, they are less important than is often assumed. The madrassa focus is unfortunate because it overshadows the much broader challenge and potential security implications of Pakistan’s failing schools.

Under the 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, the U.S. committed to tripling economic assistance to Pakistan. For FY2010, a total of $334.7 million has been set aside for Pakistani education, $264.7 million of which is allocated to basic education. U.S. policymakers are poised to start spending these taxpayer dollars, and should look closely at why and how Pakistan’s schools are failing — and the security implications of these shortcomings.

On one level, Pakistani madrassas undeniably continue to impact security in the region, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Madrassas established in refugee camps in this region were in part responsible for educating and training the Taliban’s leadership during the Afghan-Soviet war, and some militants continue to recruit in these schools.

Today, Deobandi madrassas continue to have well-established links with groups such as Sipha-e-Sahaba Pakistan. Many have been associated with suicide terrorists in Afghanistan. Many of the rank and file fighters in Jalaluddin Haqqani’s network double as madrassa students. But beyond a limited number of radical madrassas, it is not clear that most are actually radicalizing students or funneling students to militant groups, and the U.S. should spend less time worrying about madrassas and significantly more time on addressing the failure of Pakistan’s education system more broadly.

First, the link between madrassas and militancy is clear in some cases, but unwarranted in others. While one recent study shows anti-Shia sectarian attacks occur more frequently in neighborhoods that have a madrassa, few recruits into groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba spent any time in madrassas. As others have noted, there is no one-to-one relationship between madrassas and militant recruitment. The link between certain schools and militants may be idiosyncratic.

Second, estimates of widespread madrassa attendance have been discredited. Although the 9/11 Commission warned that "millions of families" were sending their kids to madrassas, the truth is that a tiny fraction of Pakistani kids attend these schools. The large majority go to government schools (about 65 percent), and an increasing portion of kids (about 30 percent) attend private schools.

Third, the astronomical rise in private school attendance is the real elephant in the room in Pakistani education, not madrassas. This calls attention to another under-appreciated fact: the quality of private schools tends to be higher than that of government schools, suggesting that Pakistani parents are turning to small, mom-and-pop private schools set up within communities to educate their kids. This is the silver lining in Pakistan’s otherwise sobering education landscape which must be leveraged by policymakers in order to spur progress on educational attainment and learning.

Fourth, we know from lessons learned in other countries that low enrollment rates — rather than religious schooling — present a significant risk factor for conflict, including militant violence. Contrary to the scare-mongering over madrassas, this risk is real, even quantifiable. One study suggests that an increase of one year in the average schooling of the population — the average in Pakistan is the equivalent of sixth grade — is estimated to reduce the likelihood that a new conflict will erupt or continue in a country by 3.6 percent.

Fifth, although we still do not know exactly how Pakistan’s public schools may be radicalizing its population, low attainment and poor quality schooling may fuel conflict in at least five different ways. Inequitable access to education can inflame anti-government and sectarian grievances, and probably has resulted in violence in parts of FATA and Balochistan. Lack of school relevance to the labor market, and poor education-sector governance, are also creating grievances among frustrated young achievers. Poor learning outcomes are also associated with poor civic values and citizenship skills; and thus militaristic curriculum and teaching incite narrow, extremist worldviews.

Education — whether public, private, or religious — is by no means the main or only cause of militancy in Pakistan. Yet at the same time, the overwhelming focus on madrassas has been aptly described as a scapegoat by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey. The much bigger challenge involves millions of Pakistani children and youth being left behind by government schools, with potentially weighty security implications for all.

Corinne Graff and Rebecca Winthrop are fellows at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, where Rebecca Winthrop is also the center co-director. They recently co-authored a new Brookings report entitled "Beyond Madrassas: Assessing the Links Between Education and Militancy in Pakistan."

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