- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf seemed pleased to be asked about the prevalence of madrassas, or Islamic religious schools, in his country. For one, Mr. Musharraf has a plan to tout. Pakistan’s strategy for dealing with the madrassas won accolades from President Bush last week. The query also gave Mr. Musharraf an opportunity to highlight the consequences of Pakistan’s limited resources — Congress take note.

“We are addressing the social sector very aggressively now,” Mr. Musharraf told editors and reporters from The Washington Times on Thursday. The Pakistani government has put together a “complete strategy” for dealing with the schools, which teach a fundamentalist and often violent form of Islam. Many madrassa graduates can recite the Koran from memory, but are illiterate, have little or no practical skills and have taken an anti-Western jihadist message to heart.

“Why do people go to madrassas? First of all, poverty,” said Mr. Musharraf. “A poor man having six children gives two or three to the madrassas.” In many parts of Pakistan, madrassas are the only schools around, and the institutions often board and feed their pupils. “We are poor on the education side,” he said.

In order to broaden the scope of madrassas, the Pakistani government is giving the institutions federal funds in exchange for the introduction of new subjects, such as English, math, science and computer application. Already, about 1,200 madrassas have registered with the government to be part of this program. There are about 7,000 madrassas in Pakistan with 700,000 students, said Mr. Musharraf.

Mr. Musharraf “is dealing with the madrassas in a way that is both productive and constructive,” said Mr. Bush, who has pledged $3 billion in aid for Pakistan. (Congress must first approve the disbursement.) Indeed, the plan seems promising. Giving schoolchildren applicable skills could help create a more productive and democratic Pakistan, and would make terrorism a less likely choice for many.

But some key questions remain: Will the government monitor the madrassas to ensure they are, in fact, teaching a broader, more secular curriculum? Also, would teachers preaching a violent, anti-Western message, that also happen to teach English, math, etc., also receive public financing? Creating jihadi extremists who speak English and are also skilled in science, math and computers would hardly be a desirable outcome. The last thing America wants is better- skilled terrorists.

According to one Pakistani official, this isn’t likely. The government would bolster its influence over the madrassas through the funding, and would likely use intelligence services to monitor the schools and ensure Hate 101 isn’t taught.

Mr. Musharraf made clear during the interview that, while the $3 billion from America is much welcomed, Pakistan doesn’t want the United States to micromanage the government’s use of the aid. Fair enough. But Mr. Musharraf’s ability to make progress with the madrassas should be a central focus of America’s relationship with the Pakistan: government and the foreign aid decisions Washington makes. While a lack of resources could well be a current problem for Mr. Musharraf, Washington should ensure that a lack of will isn’t. The White House and Congress should track Pakistan’s progress. In months to come, this page will revisit the subject.

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