The Corner

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Beyond the Saudis


Cliff, there’s no doubt that Saudi funding of radical madrassas in Pakistan has been a huge problem. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that the problem has more than one source. The madrassa problem started growing on the watch of General Zia ul-Haq’s regime in 1979. Some of the funds came from “Zakat” funds, religious contributions deducted by Zia’s Islamist-leaning government from individual bank accounts during Ramadan. In other words, the problem had internal Pakistani roots as well.

Zia’s leveling of mandatory Zakat contributions is the exception. Almost nobody in Pakistan pays taxes, and the government is therefore almost non-existent. There is no public school system to speak of. Parents send their children to madrassas in part because there are few other options for education, and the schools often provide free meals for the children – leaving the parents quite literally with one less mouth to feed (Saudi money does indeed pay for those meals). The problem here is not only Saudi funding, although that is clearly a major part of it. It is also the public’s Islamist leanings, and the weakness of the state’s reach. That is why we cannot be optimistic about quick fixes. Naturally, the Saudi issue has to be taken with great seriousness. But too few people recognize that the problem is very much rooted in the sentiments of the Pakistani people themselves, and in the fundamental weakness of the Pakistani state.

It’s true that an earlier generation of Pakistani military men received U.S. training and are friendly to this country. The military is in fact one of the more liberal institutions in the state, at least relatively speaking, rather like the army in Turkey (although a younger generation of Islamist sympathizers in the military is a huge problem). But the vast majority of Pakistanis were never liberal, modern, democratic, or pro-American. Mostly they weren’t very political at all. The rise of Islamism is changing that.

As I argue in “Tribes of Terror,” more attention needs to be paid to the internal Pakistani sources of Islamism. Saudi money is fueling the problem and making it more serious, no doubt. But we need to recognize that there is no quick fix. Reducing Saudi funding wouldn’t be near enough. We’d have to turn Pakistan into a strong and liberal state, with a liberal public education program to match.

But that won’t be easy. Saudi money or not, any move to seriously cut back on the madrassas or shift their curricula would be opposed as energetically as was Benazir Bhutto. The reason the obvious reforms don’t get done is because the state has no revenue, few competent bureaucrats, and because any real change would potentially set off further violence. Liberal teachers can be assassinated, too. Look what happened when Musharraf tried to get rid of the radical madrassa in his midst, the Lal Masjid. So once again we are back to the fundamental sympathy of many Pakistanis with Islamists as the root of the problem.

I do think that a well-funded and modern liberal education system in Pakistan has the potential to siphon off many of the less ideological families from the madrassas. But getting to the liberal, non-corrupt, courageous, competent, and powerful state apparatus required to pull this reform off will not be easy, and even if attempted could perhaps provoke a civil war as easily as our efforts to bring Benazir Bhutto back to Pakistan.

So can we take it all back to Zia? Not exactly. Zia himself exemplified the shift away from the British-educated government elite to more Islamist sympathizing Pakistanis entering government. This problem is not so much the result of any country’s foreign policy, or of any one leader, as it is a reflection of the general drift of Pakistani society. It’s the early, modern, somewhat liberal, British-inflected early years that are the anomaly.