Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The relative importance of Madrassas

Former reporter for CNN and terrorism expert Peter Bergen, a man who has actually met and interviewed Osama bin Laden, penned an opinion piece in June which I recently stumbled across. I stumble a lot. It makes the argument that madrassas should not be viewed as the primary breeding ground for terrorists. Indeed, a conventional wisdom has arisen which views these religious schools as a critical source of terroism. But Bergen challenges this assumption in writing that

While madrassas may breed fundamentalists who have learned to recite the Koran in Arabic by rote, such schools do not teach the technical or linguistic skills necessary to be an effective terrorist. Indeed, there is little or no evidence that madrassas produce terrorists capable of attacking the West. And as a matter of national security, the United States doesn't need to worry about Muslim fundamentalists with whom we may disagree, but about terrorists who want to attack us ... Like the view that poverty drives terrorism - a notion that countless studies have debunked - the idea that madrassas are incubating the next generation of terrorists offers the soothing illusion that desperate, ignorant automatons are attacking us rather than college graduates, as is often the case. In fact, two of the terrorists in our study had doctorates from Western universities, and two others were working toward their Ph.D.

But his survey of seventy-five terrorists involved with some off the most notable attacks against Westerners concludes that "only nine" had attended madrassas. That's 12%. He also points out that 53% had attended college or had college degrees.

While Bergen has forgotten far more about Islamic terrorism than I will ever know, and I agree with his argument in general, I would question his conclusions along two dimensions. First, while madrassas may not serve as training centers for attack-ready terrorists, they seem to provide terrorists with a support network. For example, the schools seem to have tight linkages with Muslim charities which help fund terrorism. Second, in becoming centers of inflammatory rhetoric, madrassas are influential in helping to proliferate hate among the masses by sending rabid, vocal and educated graduates out into their respective societies.

Madrassas are not terrorism factories as Bergen correctly points out. However, they are influential in the spread of the fundamentalist ideology, funding for terrorism and the creation of anti-Western support networks upon which terrroists depend.

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