Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Swat Valley Watch

Project to compare key spots where opposing forces in the Western confrontation with Islam are being forced to compromise, for the purpose of determining what solutions are being tried, what solutions are being ignored, and what impact the various strategies are having.

If Gaza is one experiment in how to manage the Western-Muslim confrontation, Pakistan's Swat Valley has become another. Both experiments are being conducted with extraordinary barbarity, though so far Swat has the distinct advantage of being a place one is allowed to leave, unlike Gaza, which Israel has walled in. An estimated 800,000 of Swat's 1.8 million residents have voted with their feet to become refugees rather than submit to the Taliban.

In any society, the educational system is key to long-term results, and the developing story of education in Swat merits close tracking.

So far, the Taliban appear to be concentrating on destroying the current system of education in Swat:

En un peu moins d'un an, plus d'une centaine d'établissements scolaires ont été détruits par les insurgés taliban dans cette région. Des écoles de filles surtout, mais aussi des écoles de garçons. Et si quelques-unes restent encore debout, elles n'accueillent plus grand-monde car les parents ont désormais bien trop peur d'y envoyer leurs enfants.

The Taliban justification:

"Nous détruisons les écoles parce que l'enseignement ne correspond pas à la façon dont les enfants doivent être éduqués", déclarait d'ailleurs à FRANCE 24 Muslim Khan, le porte-parole des Taliban de Swat

As for what is likely to replace the destroyed state educational system,

The Deobandi Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabiya (Pakistan’s largest union of madrassas) plans to build 1,500 mosques and 300 madrassas in AJK and NWFP.
What the actual impact of this change may be is less obvious than many Westerners may think and bears close watching.

The curriculum of Sunni madrassas generally:

consists of about twenty subjects broadly divided
into two categories: al-ulum an-naqliya (the transmitted sciences), and
al-ulum al-aqliya (the rational sciences). The subject areas include gram-
mar, rhetoric, prosody, logic, philosophy, Arabic literature, dialectical
theology, life of the Prophet, medicine, mathematics, polemics,
Islamic law, jurisprudence, Hadith, and Tafsir (exegesis of the Quran).
It is important to note that out of the twenty subjects, only eight can
be considered as solely religious. The remaining subjects are otherwise
secular and were included in Nizami curriculum both to equip the stu-
dents for civil service jobs and as an aid to understanding religious

…most of the books taught in this curriculum are
very old. Books used in philosophy and logic, for example, were writ-
ten in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Medicine is taught
through an eleventh-century text that is still considered an authentic
study of human anatomy and pathology. In what we have described
as purely religious subjects, the books used date back to the seven-
teenth century at the latest and the eleventh century at the earliest.
Books prescribed for astronomy, mathematics, and grammar are more
than five- to seven-hundred-year-old texts.

These limitations do not automatically mean that the education is worthless. The logic and philosophy courses might well give madrassa students valuable cognitive skills that American students fail to get even in the best public high schools, for example. Whether or not this will turn out to be true for new madrassas being established by the Pakistani Taliban is an issue worth exploring, as is the way in which modern global affairs are presented.

Madrassas play a positive social role:

Madrassa education has been and remains
one of the surest paths of social mobility for the lower level occupa-
tional castes and artisans of the rural areas of Pakistan. Whatever
occupational backgrounds the students have, upon the completion of
their madrassa education, they are certain to take a step forward in the hierarchy of social stratification, in terms of both income and social status.

Madrassas also cannot automatically be considered “terrorist training centers”:

First, if the madrassa education is the only or the main cause of
Islamic militancy, radicalism, and anti-Americanism, why did these
tendencies not manifest themselves before the 1990s? The curriculum
of the madrassas has remained the same for about 150 years. Second,
those who suggest an inherent relationship between the madrassa cur-
riculum and Islamic militancy and describe madrassas as “jihad facto-
ries” are probably unaware of the fact that this curriculum is the most
pacifist in its orientation. Its approach to Islam is ultra-conservative,
literalist, legalist, and sectarian, but definitely not revolutionary, radi-
cal, or militant. It is interesting to note that in the standard syllabus on
the study of Hadith, chapters on jihad in all the six standard collec-
tions of the Prophetic tradition are not discussed at all. During the
study of fiqh (jurisprudence) texts also, the entire time is spent on
“problems of menstruation,” laws relating to marriage and divorce,
and other legal hairsplitting rather than on political or jihadic issues.
There is absolutely nothing in the madrassa curriculum that can be
deemed as promoting or encouraging militancy, not to mention ter-
rorism. Radicalism that we see in some madrassas in Pakistan today is
an extraneous phenomenon brought into madrassas by some interna-
tional and domestic political actors who wanted to use the religious
capital and manpower of these madrassas for their own objectives.

It is thus hard to predict the impact of Taliban education on Swat. Broader political conditions will be key, and room for compromise clearly exists in theory.

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