What causes terrorism? We have our ideas. Academic theories on this are now so abundant that we risk getting bogged down in our own counter-terrorism echo-chamber, listening only to ourselves.

Meanwhile, violent jihadists themselves are telling us what works for them. We would do well to pay attention.

One thing violent jihadists tell us is that “madrasas” that limit children’s education solely to Quran memorization are effective in broadening the pool of recruits to their cause.

The nature of children’s education matters to them. It should matter to us.

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One veteran of the 1980s Afghan jihad and supporter of ongoing violent jihad argues that narrow Islamic “madrasa” education is the best way to dispose Muslims to be willing to fight violent jihad.

Take the experience of the Egyptian Dr. Ayman Sabri Faraj in Pakistan. His observations of Western educational models in Muslim countries convinced him that this form of education made Muslims lose interest in fighting jihad. He is so certain from his first-hand experience that Western education is antithetical to breeding young jihadis, that he believes even illiteracy and ignorance combined with religious influences are preferable to Western education.

Below is my translation, from Arabic, of Faraj’s plea for schools that will dispose children to desire fighting violent jihad. He calls for replacing multi-faceted civic education with “madrasas” limited almost exclusively to Quran memorization:

In Afghanistan a very strange phenomenon caught my attention, namely the vast difference between governmental civic education and religious education, or even illiteracy. I saw with my very own eyes the results of the two.

Those who reached secondary school loaf around in Pakistan and work at foundations or hospitals. When I was lying in a number of hospitals for a few months I had the opportunity to get to know how they think. All of the health-care attendants were Afghans educated in government schools and it was their opinion that the Soviet Union was a superpower which could not be defeated and that what the mujahedin were doing was in vain and senseless. When we would ask them, ‘but the mujahedin actually defeated the Soviets and the Russians withdrew’ they would say that America is the one who defeated the Russians. You fools! And these were not Socialists nor were they Americanized, but rather they were members in various jihad parties.

There was a vast difference between these individuals and the illiterate ones whom I saw, whether in a refugee camp or on the fronts. The illiterate individuals were the ones who drank up the religious culture from the Mullahs. The students of knowledge were actually worse, they were incomparable.

Their thinking about themselves, considering themselves Muslims, was that they were the best and the strongest of God’s creation, and that if they would wage war against a nation of the infidels they would defeat them by God’s grace, even if the infidels of the world were to join together against them. They would be victorious against them because they are Muslims and God must grant victory to the Muslims. They do not care about a superpower, nor about nuclear weapons, nor are they dazzled by technology, but rather they use it with ease and also they develop it further. I marveled at this and by God this contradiction between the results of the two kinds of education preoccupied me.

I did not find any explanation for this except that civic education is propagated as a covert method for being dazzled by the West and feeling inferior to it. It kills self-respect and it makes the goal of a person in his life little more than something fleeting and accidental. This is what is happening in our country too and in all the Muslim countries to the point that our religious education has been polluted with these afflictions. But in Afghanistan the education remains as it was in the days of the Abbasid state [749-1258 AD]—and this last statement is no exaggeration.

When I was asked about the reason for the victory of the mujahedin against the Soviets, I would say quite clearly that the reason was this ignorance! Then, after that, I would explain the matter. If the majority of Afghans had been educated like these health-care attendants, then Afghanistan would now be one of the republics of the Soviet Union.

This is why I cry out at the top of my voice to those responsible for education in the lands of the Islamic world: reform education, reform education, otherwise even ignorance would be preferable! Seek and explore the hidden motives of educational methods which make the educated like mice and lambs who have no confidence except that they are able to learn or perhaps they can think, rather than that they can take initiative and be inventive.

(From: Memoirs of an Afghan-Arab: Abu Jafar al-Masri al-Qandahari, by Dr. Ayman Sabri Faraj [a pen-name], Cairo: Dar ash-Shuruq, 1422AH/2002AD, pp. 56-57.)

Faraj associates initiative and inventiveness with youths finding increasingly clever ways to destroy others. Education that is rooted in basic questions such as “What is a human being?”, however, has the potential to enable and inspire youths to take initiative and be inventive to help their families, their communities, and their societies.

Educational reform should not focus on eliminating “madrasas” per se, and we should not become hysterical each time we hear the word. “Madrasa” is simply the Arabic word for school. So, “madrasa” just means “school,” and schools can come in many forms.

Yes, “madrasa” is the term commonly used for institutions that limit children’s education to Quran memorization, even if the children do not know Arabic. But at the same time, for example, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, “madrasa” is a generic word for school, including schools that teach basic reading and math, that inspire and enable citizens to contribute to society in medicine, agriculture, art, and other fields. A clear example of this is the wonderful work of the Central Asia Institute, made famous through the book Three Cups of Tea— a book all Americans should read. The Central Asia Institute, based in Montana, builds schools, i.e. madrasas, especially for girls, in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan to offer children a civic education.

So, madrasas per se are not the problem. The problem is, rather, programs masquerading as education that dull rather than expand children’s minds. The nature of the education is what matters.

Some deny that education could help counter terrorism by noting that the terrorists and would-be terrorists such as the 9/11 hijackers and failed Christmas Day bomber had an abundance of education. There is no indication that more education would have prevented their desire to carry out a terrorist attack.

This, however, is a false conclusion. This dismisses education as a counter-terrorism tool by limiting the discussion to just more education versus less education. That is the wrong focus. We need to devote research into and support for the kinds of education which can bring out the best in youths.

What we need to do is ask: Is there something in an engineering education, such as that of 9/11 attacker Mohamed Atta, that, due to a lack of a component of humanities study, could lead to a lack of compassion for others? What happens when education consists of just rote memorization rather than fostering critical thinking? This line of questioning about the nature of education is one of the directions that both counter-terrorism and pedagogical research need to take more seriously.

We can expand the Transportation Security Administration all we want, so long as the American people are willing to expand the national deficit, but this alone will not keep us safe.

Of course, education reform alone will not stop terrorism. If, however, education of certain kinds can foster critical thinking and constructive engagement in society, if it can lead individuals to work in hospitals rather than blowing them up, we face not only a humanitarian call but also a national security imperative to support and promote it in populations at heightened risk of being drawn into violent extremism.