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Fighting Extremism Through Education In Afghanistan

The institutionalization of democracy and its ability to attract widespread public support across Afghanistan in the past decade heralds future stability. But Kabul needs to reform the education sector so it can meet contemporary challenges and help prevent violence and instability fomented by extremist ideologies.

Since the establishment of the first high schools in the 1920s, public education in Afghanistan has been subjected to religious pressures, stringent government restrictions, and leftist and extremist Islamist ideological misuse.

In the 1980s, the pro-Soviet communist regime controlled and used schools and higher education institutions to advance its ideology and political objectives. This mindset — namely that the ruling power has the right to own and control public schools and other institutions of learning — still exists for some Afghan leaders who seek to use education as a political tool.

In today's Afghanistan, the leftist currents do not represent an organized political force. In fact, with the mujahedin victory over the last communist regime in 1992, communism evaporated, and its legacy no longer threatens academic freedom.

The mujahedin victory, however, heralded a fratricidal civil war in Afghanistan that decimated most Afghan state institutions, including the destruction of the education sector.

The most devastating transformation of the Afghan education sector took place after the Taliban overran Kabul in 1996. The brutality that the Taliban used to impose their extremist beliefs forced thousands of Afghan teachers and technocrats to leave the country. Education for girls was completely banned in state schools in areas under the Taliban rule.

Male schools operated with a heavy dose of Islamic teaching in line with the puritanical Deobandi faith of the Taliban. Clerics were given senior positions in the education bureaucracy. During the Taliban's reign, institutions of higher learning, most of which were medical or technical, were forced to teach (10 hours a week) what they called "Islamic" studies. The Taliban also banned literature, arts and sciences that didn't fit into their worldview.

The Taliban's emphasis on religious observance clashed with Afghan Islamic practices. Popular Islam in Afghanistan is rooted in Sufism, but the Taliban negated and opposed this richest part of our culture by harassing members of the Sufi orders and forcing their leaders to leave the country. The celebration of the great mystic poets such as Rumi, Sanai, Ansari and others was banned.

Although the Taliban were defeated in 2001, they have managed to retain ideological power through the madrasah networks and attempt to impose their beliefs through force. If not curbed through education, particularly the education of the school-age generation in the eastern and southern frontier, extremism could condemn Afghanistan's future to instability.

These regions are closely tied to Pakistan's northwestern regions, which face similar problems. A failure to implement a pragmatic solution to the education crisis in these border regions will result in decades of unrest, violence, crime and terrorism, as well as political chaos and economic stagnation.

As an ideological extremist movement, the Taliban — unlike any other insurgent or terrorist group — have a network of educational institutions that has survived continued military operations. Such campaigns intend only to weaken or defeat the movement's existing fighting force; they lack any viable education-centric plan to rehabilitate a new Taliban generation. Politicians and military strategists don’t seem to view education as a lasting peace alternative. Without an education-based alternative, the movement’s current school-age generation could in a few years' time take the place of their elders currently engaged in war with the military forces of the two countries — unless the two countries, with the help of the West, start treating education as a more permanent solution to challenging extremism.

The Taliban's most anti-democratic institution is the Islamic Emirate political system, which they intend to establish after militarily capturing territory. To challenge their vision of an authoritarian emirate, Afghanistan and Pakistan must strengthen their democratic institutions. Further rigged elections, with the massive fraud witnessed during the recent Afghan elections, would give ample justification for many people who have become disillusioned with democracy to support the Islamic Emirate.

The second-most formidable and terrifying institution of the Taliban is the madrasah system, which comprises recruiting centers for the Taliban war machine. I was appalled when, a few days ago, former Herat Governor Fazlullah Wahidi confirmed in an Afghan television interview that about 300 unregistered madrasahs exist in the western Afghan province. It is not the number that causes deep concern but rather those funding these schools, those running them and teaching there, and where these students are headed after graduation. There must be several thousand such unregistered religious schools.

The mujahedin, a dominant political force today, can serve as a model for mainstreaming the Taliban. Most of the main mujahedin groups, representing the mainstream Sunni and Shi'ite sects, have assumed a prominent position in the Afghan political spectrum.

With the ratification of the 2004 Constitution, which sanctioned private education, influential jihadi Shia leaders — particularly Ayatollah Mohseni and Mohammad Mohaqiq — began to open new schools and institutions of higher learning in the capital. A highly influential jihadi Sunni leader, Rasul Sayyaf, also established his university in Kabul. Although these institutions have included a heavy dose of Islamic disciplines in their curricula, on the whole they follow the traditional curriculum prescribed by the Higher Education Ministry. In addition, they are all for-profit and, as such, cannot ignore the labor market's demand for graduates.

Afghanistan and Pakistan must reach the conclusion that they need to deal with extremism through education in order to rehabilitate and re-educate the next generation of potential Taliban recruits. Educators and religious scholars, with the support of political leaders, must work together to design an education-for-peace strategy to save the two countries from future extremism.

Sharif Fayez, an Afghan scholar, is the founder of the American University of Afghanistan and a former higher education minister. His memoir, "An Undesirable Element," was recently published.