Madrassahs and Money
by Stephen Schwartz
Since the atrocities of September 11, 2001, the West has begun to pay attention to the problem of Islamic education, including particularly the madrassahs or religious schools in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, and elsewhere that indoctrinate young believers in the radical and violent doctrines of Wahhabism and related pseudo-religious ideologies.
In recent travels on behalf of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, I have begun analyzing how non-Muslims and other Westerners may assist moderate Muslims in changing this negative situation.
We now take for granted that the Saudi kingdom finances extremist Islamic education worldwide. But we ignore that the same Saudis, with all their oil and other resources, also withhold financial and other support. They prefer to subsidize those who they believe will easily support their evil schemes rather than attempt to bribe those who are reluctant to sign on for planetary confrontation.
One instance is provided by the small and poor but significant country of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Westerners tend to overlook Bosnia, treating it as a marginal area in the Muslim world. But while Bosnians lack the wealth and political influence of the Saudis, they have enormous moral credibility in the global Islamic community. For those combating radicalism, the failure of Westerners to grasp the Bosnian opportunity is doubly unfortunate.
First, in the continuing and contentious debate over the future of Islam in Europe, Bosnia and other Balkan Muslim communities are a precious asset, as they represent a moderate form of Islam that is indigenous to Europe and was tested by horrific aggression. Bosnians responded to the attacks on them by defending themselves, but not by terrorism.
Second, the prestige of Bosnians worldwide makes them the best possible emissaries for a restoration of intellectual pluralism and social moderation in Islam, and they have cultivated the sources and expression of moderate Islam through the study of the spiritual, Sufi dimension of Muslim faith.
Bosnia lost hundreds of thousands of people in the 1992-95 war; thousands of mosques were destroyed. But rich Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have failed to provide major help for the reconstruction of religious education in Sarajevo. For example, while the country of Qatar donated money for the reconstruction of the Bosnian Faculty of Islamic Studies – the main madrassahs in the Balkans – Saudi Arabia did not provide any funds for such a project and Iran, which coordinated with the U.S. to arm the Bosnians, provides no more than a small sum each year for a couple of scholarships. A leading Bosnian Muslim scholar told me, "Saudi Arabia prefers to pay for clandestine groups that attack our religious leaders than for the training of new leaders in our traditional way of Islam."
A similar example comes from Israel. An excellent school complex, the al-Qasemi Academic College of Education, operates in the Arab town of Baqa el Garbia. Its instruction is based on the teachings of the Halveti order of Sufis. The school presently has 1,200 students in grades from elementary classes through a full teacher-training curriculum. But the al-Qasemi school is also short of adequate funds.
Bosnian and Israeli Arab madrassahs, although in places that have seen a surfeit of violent conflict, nonetheless promote respect for all religions and conciliation between people. Both offer courses in teaching English, which would allow them to qualify for American aid. Their commitment and achievement are real and undeniable. Since the grandiose potentates of Riyadh and other wealthy Muslims will not support such institutions, I believe Westerners – moderate Muslims living in the U.S. and elsewhere, but also Christians and Jews – should fill the gap.
The answer to the radical madrassahs involves more than hand-wringing and production of surveys in the West. Westerners – including the U.S. and other governments – should identify and support moderate Islamic education, from Morocco to Malaysia, and from Bosnia to Botswana. The schools exist; the scholars are worthy; the students are hungry for spiritual education that will equip them to function well in a peaceful world. Let us, in the West, find ways and means to support such institutions, making them strong, authoritative, and successful. The lives of all of us may depend on it.