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Professor's Study of Madrassahs Generates Heat, Insight

By the view Staff Article published September 13, 2005

Whether in Pakistan, the United States, or via international media like the British Broadcasting Company and Voice of America, Saleem Ali, assistant professor of environmental studies, energetically advocates for empirically informed, multi-factor analysis of phenomena that often inspire more rhetoric than understanding.

Ali, a native of Pakistan, found himself drawn into studying issues of international conflict and terror after Sept. 11. With a grant from the U.S. Institute for Peace, he conducted the first wide-ranging study of Pakistan’s madrassahs, an analysis that showed that the relationship between terrorism and Islamic religious schools is more complex than often reported, and that certain madrassah reforms were unlikely to succeed. Ali completed a paper and draft book manuscript based on the study, “Islamic Education and Conflict: Understanding the Madrassahs of Pakistan,” this summer. It is currently under review by a university press. (the view covered some of the study's preliminary findings here.)

“Some colleagues often wonder why I go beyond my basic environmental interests into other areas,” Ali says. “ My response is that conflict occurs due to multiple causality and we cannot be isolationists in our inquiry. Even with the madrassah research we looked at many environmental indicators for poverty and hence prevalence of madrassahs such as water scarcity, energy resource access and land fertility.”

In addition to his academic work, Ali contributes regularly to the mainstream press both in the U.S. and Pakistan. He published an opinion article, “The Educated Terrorist,” in the Boston Globe on Sept. 9, a piece that challenged the common idea that education tempers radicalism.

“My academic and professional interest is ultimately in conflict resolution and I feel that lasting resolution is only possible with public awareness of the issues at stake — whether that is environmental conflicts or ethnic conflicts,” he says, explaining why he directs so much energy into his nonacademic writing.

In August, he published an essay, “The Peril and Persistence of Memory,” in the Pakistani newspaper The Daily Times, arguing among other things that “there is a difference between learning from history and being governed by the past.” Ali argues for progress and tolerance in the piece.

“There is reluctance to exorcise memories of past injustices that are irrelevant to contemporary times,” he writes. “Regrettably, some Muslims often remember only the first clauses of Quranic verses which urge caution in friendship with non-Muslims and forget the subsequent Quranic injunctions to forgive past iniquities and move forward without prejudice.”

In July, he spoke to the Voice of America about the relationship between madrassah schools and violence, including a finding from his Institute for Peace study that proliferation of the schools was strongly correlated with sectarian violence the Ahmedpur East district in Pakistan. The previous month, he co-authored a Christian Science Monitor op-ed that made similar arguments. While initial, uncritical descriptions of madrassahs as “terrorism factories,” were misguided, some later revisionist studies underestimated the role that some of the schools have in inciting terror.

"The madrassah effect is real and visible,” Ali asserted. The piece also observed that Ali and his colleagues found that most of the schools followed outdated curricula that were unlikely to prepare graduates for jobs in a globalized economy.

Ali completed a 16-minute documentary offering a visual narrative of Pakistani madrassas in July. The video is available online (Real Player format).

In the midst of all this, Ali is also pursuing grant-funded environmental research looking at a comparative study of environmental conflicts in the gemstone-mining sector.