U.S. Faulted on School Policies In Muslim Nations

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 31, 2004 5 min read
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While witnesses were criticizing the Bush administration for its security policies before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks last week, analysts across town were knocking the administration for the education policies it promotes in Islamic countries.

A four-member panel addressed the issue of educating children in Muslim countries during a March 23 forum at the Cato Institute, a think tank supportive of limited government involvement in problem-solving.

Read “Education and Indoctrination in the Muslim World,” from the CATO Institute. (Full report requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Current U.S. strategies to combat the teaching of radical Islamic fundamentalism are ineffective, asserted Andrew Coulson, a senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative-leaning think tank in Midland, Mich. Instead, he argued at the event, and in a recent policy analysis published by the Cato Institute, the government would achieve better results by supporting the development of private secular schools.

The United States tries to persuade governments in Muslim countries to control or moderate the curricula of the privately run religious schools known as madrassas, he said, and to expand access to free, government-run schools in those countries. Madrassas provide instruction in Islam and may or may not teach secular subjects.

Such schools often provide room and board to students and tend to be the most affordable schooling option. They, more than any other type of school, according to Mr. Coulson, teach youths the kind of hatred of the United States that could lead to participation in terrorism. (“Religion Rules Afghan, Pakistani School Day,” Oct. 10, 2001.)

Because Muslim countries don’t want to alienate fundamentalist Muslims, Mr. Coulson said, it’s difficult to get even moderate countries to crack down on madrassas. In addition, he contended, even if countries could be persuaded to compel madrassas to include secular subjects such as mathematics or computer science, the schools might not tone down their ideology.

The U.S. strategy, Mr. Coulson maintained, also poses problems “because it is not entirely consistent with American ideals … to have us lean on foreign governments to tell them how they may or may not educate their citizens.”

‘Making Some Progress’

Nor does Mr. Coulson believe that expanding access to government-run schools is the answer. He said the curricula in many of those schools are not free of radical Islamic views or militant rhetoric against foreign countries, such as the United States.

In contrast, Mr. Coulson said, the type of schools that have proved to be the most academically effective in Islamic countries and most free of extreme religious ideology are secular private schools. As a result, the United States should focus on lifting trade barriers so that people in Muslim countries can earn more money and thus afford to send their children to such schools. He suggested that Washington consider providing private school vouchers for parents in Muslim countries.

But in a later interview, Andrea Rugh, an international education consultant who has worked in Arab countries and attended the forum, said Mr. Coulson’s proposals were impractical. “You can sit at your desk and spin all kinds of solutions,” she said, “but they don’t necessarily work in practice.”

The idea of lifting trade barriers so that parents in Muslim countries could eventually afford private schools is “a remote and indirect method” of giving more children access to high-quality schooling, she said. If the countries did generate more wealth, she said, there’s no guarantee it would trickle down to the people who are now poor.

Gregg Sullivan, a spokesman for the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau of the U.S. Department of State, asserted in an interview that the U.S. strategies for containing the teaching of extreme Islamic fundamentalism had been effective. “We do see we’re making some progress in removing the objectionable references,” such as anti-Semitic or anti-Western viewpoints in school textbooks, he said.

Western Assumptions

None of Mr. Coulson’s fellow panelists countered his views.

Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, who recently served as a senior education adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, questioned the wisdom of some of the assumptions of the U.S. government and nonprofit organizations about education in Iraq.

For example, he doubted the appropriateness of the World Bank’s effort to persuade the Iraqis to expand free compulsory schooling through the 9th grade rather than through the primary grades, the country’s current setup.

Though he refrained from directly criticizing the Bush administration’s policies, Mr. Evers did suggest that foreign-aid agencies explore how the quality of education in Iraq could be improved or how education could be provided more efficiently, rather than assuming it was best to bring as many Iraqis into the state-run school system as possible.

Mr. Evers said the Iraq Ministry of Education has drawn up a policy that would permit the licensing of private schools. But, he said, the policy doesn’t make investment in such schools attractive because it requires that they be licensed by the government on an annual basis. In addition, he said, it requires that private schools provide the same curricula as the state-run ones and administer the same national tests to students.

Iraq hasn’t had private schools since the 1970s, when they were nationalized by the country’s Baathist Party, which former President Saddam Hussein headed.

Husain Haqqani, a native of Pakistan and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained that indoctrination has always been linked to education in the Muslim world. Madrassas were started in Baghdad in the 11th century with the idea that “an empire needs people who think alike,” he said. He noted the irony that the United States once had no problem with financing the very kind of radical Islamic schooling that it is now trying to combat.

He and other panelists recalled that the United States financed madrassas that taught “radical” or “militant” Islam in Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s in an attempt to boost the numbers of young men who wanted to fight the former Soviet Union, then at war with Afghanistan.


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