Fighting Terrorism With Education

problem: In many underdeveloped Muslim countries, education is not available to all citizens. Many of the boys and young men in these countries receive their education in small religious schools, the madrasas, which teach their students a strictly fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. Militant Islamic extremists use these schools as vehicles to recruit would-be terrorists.

solution: Citizens in these countries have shown that they are open to new schools being built with funds and support from Western nations. These schools encourage women to participate and teach a well-rounded curriculum free from fundamentalist tenets. The resulting improvement in literacy and understanding of the outside world creates a more temperate outlook and reduces poverty and overpopulation.

Every year, hundreds of wealthy westerners flock to the Himalayan mountains of Asia in hopes of conquering some of the world’s most challenging peaks. Most hire local villagers to guide them to the summit, carrying their gear along the way. These villagers usually do the lion’s share of the work for pennies.

In 1993, American mountaineer Greg Mortonsen decided to attempt to climb Pakistan’s infamous K2, one of the highest and most dangerous peaks in the world. Mortonsen didn’t make it to the top, but he did learn a lot about living conditions in this wild and remote region. Mortonsen had become separated from his group on the descent and eventually stumbled down the mountain, exhausted and disoriented, with no shelter, food or water. Luckily, he managed to hike to a tiny mountain village, where he was cared for by the locals until he regained his strength. Recovering from his climb, he was shocked to see the rampant poverty and high infant mortality rate (over 30%) common in the villages of this area.

Finding that less than 3% of residents had achieved literacy, Mortonsen saw the most effective way to give back to the people who had been so kind to him in his hour of need. Mortonsen believed that education was the key to reducing poverty, reducing child mortality, and slowing the birth rate. He began raising money to build schools. One of his requirements for building a new school was that it had to allow women to attend. Mortonsen recognized that women’s education was key to making progress against poverty, infant mortality and high birth rates.

Mortonsen was onto something. Studies have shown that in countries where women have received higher education, there are consistent outcomes that improve the quality of life in that country. Poverty rates and child mortality decrease significantly with increasing education. Economies are growing and birth rates are falling as more women enter the labor market. Mortonsen understood that poverty and ignorance are the motivating social factors that drive religious extremism. If he could reduce ignorance and poverty through education; especially education for women, then it could reduce the incentive for the religious extremism used to recruit terrorists.

When Mortonsen started raising money, he didn’t get a great response from the famous and wealthy people he tried to contact. His best answer came from American school children. A group of Wisconsin elementary school kids raised over $600 in pennies to support his cause. This caught the attention of adults, who began to take Greg’s mission more seriously, and was the start of a program called Pennies for Peace. Today, Pennies for Peace educates American schoolchildren about life in other countries and shows them how the pennies they collect can help make the world a better place for children in other countries. The money these children raise is sent directly to Pakistan and Afghanistan to build schools and sports facilities.

Today, Greg Morton directs the Central Asia Institute. The Central Asia Institute’s mission is: To promote and deliver community-based education and literacy programs, particularly for girls, in remote mountainous regions of Central Asia. This year the schools built by Greg Mortonsen and the CAI educated over 20,000 children in the 55 schools built over the past 12 years. Almost 50% of these students are girls. CAI ensures women have access to this education by requiring that enrollment for girls increase by 10% each year. The curriculum at CAI schools focuses on mathematics, science and languages. Students at CAI schools scored an average of 72% on exams last year to qualify for middle school. In comparison, the national average in Pakistan is less than 45%. Besides building schools, CAI has also developed over 15 water projects and built four vocational training centers for women.

All too often in these regions, the only source of aid and support for these villagers comes from Taliban militants or extremist groups funded by Saudi Arabian funds. These groups take full advantage of this dependency to repress women’s rights and drive young men and boys into madrassas when they can be indoctrinated with extreme fundamentalist ideology and later recruited into terrorism. The formation of the CAI schools offers an alternative to this path and an opportunity to improve life in these villages without submitting to the warlords and religious extremists.

When Mortonsen began his mission of providing education and assistance to people in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan, he did not have much support at home. Even more frightening was the threat posed by local tribal chiefs and clergy. Several times, Mortonsen almost gave his life for his mission when fatwas for his death were issued by angry mullahs who believed him to be a US government spy. Mortonsen once survived an armed kidnapping by escaping and hiding under a pile of animal carcasses as they were being transported out of town. Even in the face of danger, Mortonsen persevered, continuing to build schools and relationships until his critics were convinced of the value of his contributions.

Apparently the results in these impoverished regions speak a loud language. Saeed Abbas Risvi, the senior Shia spiritual leader in Pakistan, was so impressed by Mortonsen’s work that he approached the Supreme Council of Ayatollahs in Iran and managed to obtain a very rare letter of recommendation for Mortonsen to put him before the local to protect mullahs and clerics. As news of his success traveled home, Mortonsen earned the respect of some prominent members of Congress who now support the work of the Central Asia Institute.

Many lessons can be learned from the success of the Central Asia Institute and the respect Greg Mortonsen has earned from Muslim leaders. One of them is a lesson in economics. Mortonsen has shown that investing in reducing poverty and ignorance can be the most cost-effective solution to terrorism. He adds, “If we could turn the $1 million to buy a Tomahawk cruise missile that was dropped on the Taliban into educational aid, we could deal a major blow to terrorism.” Another lesson is that the education of women is possibly the most effective way to combat poverty and ignorance. To quote Mortonsen; “Girls’ education is a powerful sword in the fight against terrorism.” One wonders if much of the money spent on the war on terror would have been better spent on educating women and reducing poverty and ignorance in the places where terrorists are recruited.

Thanks to Randy Bisenz | #Fighting #Terrorism #Education

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