All 77,701 words

Young men at the Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa spend their time memorizing all 77,701 words of the Koran.

Some people call it the University of Jihad. The fact that some of Haqqania’s graduates go on to become Taliban fighters and suicide bombers isn’t the school’s concern, said Syed Yousef Shah, the head of the 3,000- student madrasa. “One person may become a journalist, another a driver,” he said as he reclined on a pillow in a small meeting room in the school. “We can’t control what people do afterward.”

Well that’s bullshit. Granted, a madrasa can’t control directly what its graduates do later, but any school naturally shapes and influences what its graduates do later, by means of what it teaches. Madrasas teach nothing except the Koran and this fact shapes what their graduates do later in several ways, including by making it impossible for them to do any jobs that require real, substantive education. One person may become a journalist, as Shah said, but one graduate of a madrasa may not, because such a graduate won’t have any of the skills needed to be a journalist. Graduates of madrasas can do the usual kind of underpaid unskilled shitwork, but they can’t do anything that depends on knowledge and literacy and critical thinking.

That’s the minimal objection to what Shah said; there is of course a less minimal one, which is that obsessive focus on the Koran does tend to, at least, soften people up for outfits like the Taliban. Madrasas can’t control what people do afterward but they sure as hell can influence it; they can and they do.

Madrasas are places that train people (mostly male, though not exclusively) to be narrow, uninformed, fanatical, and submissive to authority. They train people to memorize and obey a book written in a language that they don’t even know. They are factories for producing ignorant zealots.

The madrasa curriculum and routine – studying the Koran and other religious texts to the exclusion of much else, with a strong focus on rote memorization and strict obedience – has resisted change for centuries. The vast majority of Pakistan’s estimated 20,000 or so Islamic seminaries are benign. Several hundred, however, teach extreme forms of Islam that experts say provide a training ground for militancy and jihad, or holy war.

No, they’re not benign. This is that excessively minimalist idea of what is benign that we’re always encountering – the idea that anything short of terrorism is okay. There’s a lot that’s short of terrorism that is still not okay. The first sentence of that extract flatly contradicts the next sentence. A pseudo-school that teaches rote memorization of and strict obedience to the Koran is not benign. It deprives all its pseudo-students of anything resembling a real education, and it trains them into fanaticism. There is nothing benign about that.

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