Commentary: Not all madrassas teach hate

Special to McClatchy NewspapersNovember 21, 2010 

When I first entered the large Kuddamuddin Madrassa in Lahore some years ago, it seemed to be full of light-hearted boys kicking around soccer balls or hanging out in clusters between classes. The four story brick and stucco building in the old city, with its ornate window frames and doors, could have been built a hundred years ago – long before the Islamic revival that has led to conflict around the world.

Then I learned from the school’s director that the only class taught there was Koran. And that all the students were preparing to join the fight to defend Islam.

I drew aside one boy of 14, Obeidulla Anwer, to question him more closely.

“What will you do after you complete this school?”

“I will go to defend Islam.”

“Where will you go to fight?”

“Any place Islam is attacked. Other boys from here went to Chechnya, Philippines, Kashmir, Indonesia. I want to go where they went.”

“Do you realize that you will not only risk death but you will have to kill other people?”

“Yes. But it is permitted to kill the enemies of Islam.”

His teachers clustering around him smiled and nodded. Their pupil had learned his lessons well. Killing and dying is permitted – no, it is required – to defend Islam.

“But how will you know who is an enemy of Islam?”

“If I say to them ‘Salam Aleikum’ and they do not know how to reply.”

“In my country, America, most people do not understand Arabic and do not know that ‘Aleikum Salam’ is the correct response. Does that mean all those Americans are enemies of Islam?”

Obeidulla pondered a while. His teachers backed off a bit to let him come up with his answer.

“No,” he said, quite firmly. “They are not all enemies of Islam.”

At last. Wisdom coming from within that child dispersed the noxious clouds of intolerance in the air.

Surely these 14 your old boys in that madrassa are not by their inner nature filled with hate and wanting to attack Americans, Christians, Jews, Shiites, Hindus and all who live a different culture and lifestyle. Even this boy getting ready to fight wherever he is sent knew right from wrong.

But the Pakistani students in madrassas are starved for information and contacts with the world beyond the walls of the school. Before that, in the impoverished villages of Punjab they come from, families are so poor they cannot afford a radio. They certainly do not buy newspapers which, most likely, no one in the household can read.

The only information coming to millions of Pakistanis such as this boy and his parents comes out of the sermon on Friday delivered in the local mosque by a preacher who may well be enthralled by the extremist interpretations of Islam proliferating in recent years – partly in reaction to the Western war on terrorism which sends non-Muslim troops into Muslim countries.

In fact, the teachers and leaders of many of the 20,000 or more madrassas in Pakistan have little contact with the wider world. They are not aware that millions of Muslims around the world practice tolerance and friendship with Muslims from other sects as well as Christians, Jews and Hindus.

After all, more Muslims live peacefully in India among the majority Hindus than live in Pakistan. Indian Muslims go to schools, jobs and markets side by side with Hindus. Egyptian Muslims live side by side with Christians. Turkish, Iranian and Moroccan Muslims live side by side with Jews.

It is easy to demonize unseen strangers as terrifying imagined monsters and “enemies of Islam.” One of the saddest byproducts of religious violence has been the increasing segregation and isolation of Muslims from friendships with others.

Recently a private group based in Washington has begun meeting with madrassa leaders to argue that the Koran itself as well as the scriptures of the Christians and Jews agree on the basic ethics of tolerance, kindness, and non-violence.

For six years now, the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD) has been training madrassa teachers with an emphasis on religious tolerance, human rights, and critical thinking skills. And yes, 2,500 madrassa leaders – even from very extremist tendencies -- have accepted the training which ICRD argues is “grounded in Islamic principles.”

I know personally that in many years of traveling in Islamic countries since 1965, I had never felt threatened or repelled because I was not a Muslim. Only recently – since the jihad against Russian troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s – has that sort of militant Islamist intolerance with non-Muslims become fashionable.

ICRD regrettably gets no assistance from the U.S. government in this very important work. That’s because some bureaucrats interpret the non-establishment clause of the U.S. constitution to mean that U.S. funds cannot go to improve overseas religious schools – even if those schools are turning out tens of thousands of young men filled with hatred against the United States.

Perhaps it is best that reaching out to madrassas be done without U.S. government support since so many already see our government as an enemy.

The five leaders of Pakistan’s madrassa associations came to Washington last year along with the secretary of religious affairs. These bearded and robed men, who might have peopled our own worst nightmares, spoke of tolerance and understanding among all religions. They asked for help to get their schools accredited in Pakistan so their graduates might attend university.

The ICRD says that 93 percent of madrassa leaders and teachers who attended its trainings and dialogues report that they better understand the role of Islam in promoting religious tolerance.

Many of these teachers deliver those Friday sermons that can be the sole source of information to millions of Pakistanis and they report they are teaching tolerance since taking these training courses.

We are of course horrified at reports that Islamist extremists kill Christians in Baghdad, Shia Muslims in Lahore, Hindus and Jews in Mumbai. But these extremists are a small fraction of the world’s more than one billion Muslims.

It is natural for Americans to respond with strength to violent attacks such as 9/11 and many other attacks foiled by good intelligence, old-fashioned detective work and good luck.

But the idea of speaking with Muslims about religious teachings which all great religions share has become an imperative. It is an alternative to the drone attacks and night raids that are bound to drive more Muslims to hate America.

That 14 year old boy, despite all the brainwashing he had been given in a madrassa devoted to jihad, knew the right answer to my question. No, he said. All those who are not Muslims like me are not enemies of Islam. This is the innate human logic of the heart and the mind. It leads to peace.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

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