By Laura Kim – Once touted as a major success of the post-Taliban era, education has now become the locus of contention between religious and secular forces in Afghanistan. The international community and the Afghan government are currently faced with the challenge of madrassas, religious schools, and their place within the education reform process. While the international NGOs operating in the country continue to dismiss any association with madrassas, the Afghan government is working to nationalize them to balance religious curricula with modern subjects. Both methods are fraught with danger that can jeopardize progress in the country.
Since the ousting of the Taliban and the establishment of the new government, the international community has been pouring millions of dollars of aid to revitalize the Afghan education system. In late 2001, UNICEF and UNESCO led the reconstruction efforts, and their “Back to School” campaign was one of the largest undertakings in their history. Ten million books were airlifted to secular schools to enable them to open by the following spring. But such ambitions have not been without consequence. NGOs and agencies-the main contributors to the country’s education budget-have been reluctant to interact with religious actors or are restricted from doing so by their donors. Madrassas, thus, are not recipients of any aid.
The international community’s unwillingness stems from the notion that madrassas are potential breeding grounds for terrorism. Since 9/11, madrassas have come under intense scrutiny by the international media, despite the woeful lack of data linking them to extremism. As a result, they have become sensationalized as monolithic “schools of hate” with grave implications for the stability of the world, rather than as traditional sites for the study of Islam, representing different sects and pedagogical philosophies.
In light of such suspicion toward religious education, and in an attempt to drain existing madrassas, the Afghan Ministry of Education has begun introducing policies to build state-funded madrassas with curricula with more emphasis on modern subjects. But reform has been met with much opposition from the ulema. Various efforts to control and modernize madrassas have been undertaken by other states, including Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan to little success. This is because, for over a thousand years, despite considerable variation over time and place, madrassas have served as learning centers for future Islamic scholars and clerics – not for the general education of society. Further, state control and interference is also perceived as a political threat: an undermining of the ulema’s authority as preservers and interpreters of faith. Thus, any suggestion for reform is easily dismissed as pro-Western and anti-Islamic.
The Ministry is faced with a difficult task. On one hand, it must respond to demands for an education that is inclusive of Afghan culture. On the other, it must respond to an international donor community that is opposed to any fusion of church and state. Controversy began in 2001, when it decided to approve the use of curriculum textbooks which were similar, though less overtly violent, to those used by the mujahedin. It did not distribute the Basic Competencies of Learning materials developed by UNICEF and Save the Children because the education authorities deemed them to be insufficiently religious and an extension of Western hegemony over Afghanistan.
As security in the country continues to deteriorate, the call for a sustainable education policy is urgent. There is no need to discuss whether Afghanistan should have both types of education: both are necessary for life in Afghanistan. A madrassa education solely cannot prepare for a successful life in a modern world. While this is not a concern for its core purpose of training religious scholars, students nevertheless should be equipped with literacy, numeracy, and technological skills in order to face the needs of a modern economy. At the same time, a strictly secular education leaves a child uninformed for life in the Muslim community.
In this climate of hostility and distrust, the path to mitigation lies in an active engagement with Islamic education – not in its dismissal or dilution. Throughout their existence, madrassas have evolved to meet the changing conditions of the world. Market forces will articulate the rationale for reform and encourage processes that the government cannot. For the ulema to prove themselves to be of relevance to society, they will have to meet the demand for modern skills – for valuable dialogue with state authorities and the community. The Afghan government and the international community must not only acknowledge madrassa autonomy, but they must carefully and persuasively set the conditions for organic reform. Otherwise, the talk of madrassas as terror hotbeds (and the subsequent alienation of the ulema) will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
 Afghanistan’s national education budget is covered by contributions from the United Nations, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and a number of governmental donor agencies, among whom the USAID is the largest
 The World Bank, for example, which funds Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Programme and the Community Development Council, has bylaws which clearly prohibit implementing any work related to religious activities.
Laura Kim is a Communications Associate at the Stimson Center