- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

There are a few bright lights in this era of grim news, one of which is a little-heralded effort to modernize Pakistan’s 15,000 to 20,000 madrassas. Some of these Islamic schools for millions of poor children have been a seedbed for al Qaeda attacks around the world.

Into the middle of this has stepped Douglas Johnston, 69, a former U.S. Navy commander who served a stint in the Ford administration, taught at Harvard and ran the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The author of “Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft,” he is the founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD).

An evangelical Anglican, he risks his life going to parts of the world (Karachi, Islamabad, Baluchistan) most Americans avoid.

When I met him a few weeks ago, I asked if he’s afraid of never coming back from these trips. “Well,” he responded, “we pray.”

Because of past threats, he said, “The last time over there, I stayed at one of the two places in Islamabad that offered significant security. That was the Marriott hotel that two weeks later was blown up.”

Four years ago, he started an initiative to “win the hearts and minds” of some of the world’s most radical madrassas in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier province by offering training programs for their instructors.

He quickly ran up against a culture that discourages innovation. His first task was to show the need for critical-thinking skills.

“It used to be that if a young man raised his hand in class, he was punished for disrespect,” he said. “The tribal traditions are so pervasive and there is an ingrained tendency to accept what has gone before. We are taught to question things from day one. That is not the case over there.”

The ICRD set up a faith-based program accommodated to Islamic ideals, such as a love of learning, with add-ons for human rights, religious tolerance, math and science. Muslims were more comfortable working with Christian westerners than secular westerners, he found, because they shared common assumptions about God’s existence and providence.

“A lot of madrassa leaders are concerned that their students are not equipped to deal with contemporary problems,” he said. “The only career paths for their students are to teach at a madrassa themselves or become an imam at the local mosque.”

He would like to think that madrassa reform prevents wars.

“People come in with a hostile attitude toward the West,” he said, “but they come out thinking seriously about peaceful coexistence and conflict resolution.

He’s happy with a September report from the Salam Institute at American University that praised the ICRD for creating “a more pluralistic and democratic environment in Pakistan.”

Among the madrassas, it added, there is no other outlet that discusses human rights, democracy, women’s rights, interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution. ICRD’s efforts, he said, were originally met with some suspicion, but now, “Our phones are ringing off the hook. People are telling us, ‘We don’t care where you get your funding, we just want your training.’”

Including the women.

“In the rural areas, the women tend to be stronger adherents to Islamic precepts than the men, and they have a near monopoly on the formative years of the youth before they reach the madrassas,” he said. “So, if you want to change social mores, you need to reach the women as well.”

Contact Julia Duin at [email protected]

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