- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Few would have expected Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to focus on radical madrassas, or Islamic schools, in his private communications with top advisers. This focus would be more predictable in a secretary of state or national security adviser. But, in his much-commented-on memo, which was leaked to USA Today, Mr. Rumsfeld put special attention on madrassas, asking: “Does the U.S. need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists?”

Drafting and implementing such a plan should be a high priority. An estimated 6 million Muslims study in madrassas around the world. Pakistan is of special concern. Madrassas there began to seriously proliferate when jihadists were needed to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the battle with the Soviets was won, the clout of these schools rose, and many continue to receive foreign funding, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iran. There are currently up to 1 million madrassas in Pakistan, a minority of which, perhaps 15 percent, indoctrinate their pupils with Islamic vitriol and militancy.

In a July 2 editorial, this newspaper looked at the Pakistani government’s plan for dealing with madrassas and proposed revisiting the subject in coming months. Most analysts say it is too soon to track the government’s progress, but there are already several notable setbacks and apparent shortcomings in initiative and approach.

For starters, the government of President Pervez Musharraf has yet to put a madrassa reform law up for a vote in parliament. Such a law would give the reform effort democratic legitimacy and allow the government to implement several requirements. As it stands, Pakistan’s $255 million plan is voluntary, giving madrassas monetary incentives to register and teach a broader, more pragmatic curriculum.

Yesterday, a council of clerics in Pakistan that runs thousands of madrassas rejected the deal: public funding for their schools in exchange for curriculum expansion. The rejection is an embarrassing setback for the government and demonstrates that compulsory reform for schools is necessary. Madrassas can get by with little funding and are often supported by foreign sponsors.

The administration should urge the Pakistani government to require madrassas to register, to expand the curriculum and to declare sources of funding. Diplomas should be available only to graduates from madrassas that comply with the government’s program. The United States should also consider bolstering funding for secular education in Pakistan.

This is, of course, a wish list of reforms, but if Congress approves President Bush’s aid package for Pakistan, the United States will have $3 billion to leverage the changes. The United States has several priorities in Pakistan, and madrassa reform should be high on the list.

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