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Reforming Pakistan’s madrassas

NBC's Tom Brokaw reports from Pakistan on the move to change Muslim religious schools that teach children to love Allah — and hatred of Christians and Jews.

In Mardan, Pakistan, there’s a desperate shortage of educated people to deal with illiteracy, poverty, health care and other fundamental needs. But some young men graduating from a madrassa were taught only one subject — Islam — and often with a radical point of view.

According to Islamic scholar Samina Admed, “The way they teach this whole notion of a holy war — this sinks into these young minds very early on.  You’re talking about little children who go into the madrassas. The end result is indoctrination.”

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf is determined to reform the madrassas.  He got the Pakistan parliament to vote $100 million to broaden the curriculum, but now it’s a question of whether the religious teachers will cooperate.

“Without jobs, without economic activity, the madrassas actually turn out these dangerous kids with no place to go and no future — and that is dangerous,” said Dr. Nasim Ashraf of the National Commission for Human Development.

It’s a massive undertaking.  There are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 madrassas in Pakistan, and many provide room and board and even clothing.

One madrassa near Peshawar in western Pakistan is an example of how isolated and insulated the youngsters are.  Twenty-five young boys live there, getting two meals a day, and spend virtually all their time memorizing verses from the Quran.

NBC showed them a video of the 9/11 attacks. They had never heard of them. The images seemed to frighten them, and their teacher, Abdul Rahman, insisted 9/11 had nothing to do with a true Muslim. “An act like this is totally forbidden in our religion,” he said.

But the Islamic concept of jihad, or a holy war, is part of the faith, and some prominent Pakistani Muslims don’t want that removed. 

So, how to balance it?  One school, northwest of Islamabad, is a model for what the government is trying to do.  It’s in a poor neighborhood.  Ninety percent of the parents are uneducated, and yet their children are able to get a mainstream education in grades one through five.

The school has textbooks, blackboards, a playground financed with U.S. aid and a principal, Rehana Kausar, from the neighborhood.  Kausar is the first of seven girls in her family to be educated.  But there’s no school lunch and not even indoor plumbing.

Two years ago, the Pakistani government tried to estimate how many schools it would take to handle the 8 million kids of primary age not in class now.

“The numbers that came up is 8,500 primary schools.  That’s the kind of numbers we needed two years earlier.  They can become 10,000 in 2004, maybe more,” said Zubaida Jalal, Pakistan’s minister for education.

Pakistan has so many problems, on so many fronts, but nothing is more important to its future than the education of its children — boys and girls.

And nothing is as important to the rest of the world as the kind of education these millions of young Pakistanis receive.