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The Roots Of Terrorism Are Internal, Not External

As long as Pakistan's youth have little choice but conservative religious education, they will be trapped in the same cycle of poverty and extremism.

As long as Pakistan's youth have little choice but conservative religious education, they will be trapped in the same cycle of poverty and extremism.

Muslims across the world have a right to be angry.

Despite being blessed with natural riches and an expanding population, 60 percent of them are illiterate, a figure that rises to more than 70 percent in the case of women.

More than half the world's Muslims live under authoritarian rule and are denied the right to vote and other benefits of democracy. Access to travel and modern education is reserved for the elite, as is the ownership of assets.

In short, the long-established elites in many Muslim-majority countries have so monopolized power and its benefits that the rest of the population continues to suffer discrimination and lack of opportunity

Take the example of Pakistan, a country that today produces large numbers of terrorists. Unlike neighboring India, where democracy has taken deep root and has led to land and economic reforms across more than 80 percent of the country, Pakistan's rural poor continue to suffer under landlords who use them almost as draft animals.

Politics in Pakistan is very largely controlled either by this feudal elite or their cousins, the business community that acquired its wealth through contacts with the all-powerful armed forces. People's Party leader and President Asif Ali Zardari comes from a family of feudal landlords, while Nawaz Sharif, the second-most-powerful politician in Pakistan and head of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), is one of the richest businesspersons in the country. In the National Assembly, there are almost no representatives of the urban or rural poor, even though together those groups constitute more than 80 percent of the population.

Teaching To Fail

Why is it that the people of Pakistan have thus far been unable to empower themselves in a way that ensures a fairer distribution of national assets? Why is it that after six decades of independence, only the feudal elite and the well-connected can hope to succeed in Pakistan?

Apart from the absence of land reform designed to free the millions of peasants and landless from the tyranny of the feudal lords, another reason why Pakistan has become a problem for the international community is its education system, especially at the school level. Because of extreme poverty and lack of educational infrastructure, many parents have no option but to send their children to the "madrasahs," or religious schools. Given a choice, most of these parents -- and their children -- would probably prefer a comprehensive education, rather than the restricted curriculum available within a madrasah.

Pakistan's elite: Nawaz Sharif (left) with Asif Ali Zardari (center) and his son Bilawal
In India, the Ministry of Human Resource Development began a scheme six years ago that provided madrasahs state-funded access to computers, as well as to subjects such as the English language, and several religious schools have taken advantage of this to expand their staff and the range of subjects taught. While an old-fashioned madrasah education does not equip a graduate to compete effectively in the global marketplace, students in the more modern madrasahs in India are enabled, by a fusion of religious and comprehensive teaching, to handle a much greater variety of occupations than their counterparts from old-fashioned institutions.

Even the most fanatical religious extremist does not hesitate to use the Internet or modern methods of travel and communication, correctly recognizing in them not just attributes of culture but tools for self-betterment. Likewise, language too is only a method of personal advancement, and the learning of English -- the international language of communication -- can open the way to opportunities that would otherwise remain closed.

While in India several madrasahs have now dropped their objection to the teaching of English (and in some cases, even to teaching in English), in Pakistan those who run the madrasahs remain opposed to any innovations in their curricula. The result is that hundreds of thousands of students graduate from religious schools without the ability to compete in the international jobs marketplace.

No One Else To Blame

Because of this frustration, some turn to extremism, just as many from poor urban and rural families in Pakistan turn to extremism because local elites have blocked their paths to advancement.

Although the local elite in Pakistan blames external factors for the accelerated radicalization of youth in the country, pointing to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the disputed Kashmir region, the truth is that they themselves are the culprits. It is the ramshackle educational structure that they have imposed on the poor that is to blame. It is the absence of opportunity caused by the stranglehold of the feudal elite in the rural areas and the commercial-military elite in the cities that has led thousands of youths towards radicalism.

By always emphasizing external factors, the elites in Pakistan hope to be able to continue concealing from the rest of the population the fact that they themselves are the guilty persons. They themselves are responsible for the poverty and the lack of opportunity in Pakistan that creates the atmosphere in which so many embrace radicalism.

The lone individual caught in the November 26-28 Mumbai terror attack, Ajmal Kasab, represents the face of this new terrorist. He joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba group because it provided him with both an income and a social identity. Unless fundamental reforms take place within Pakistan's society and educational system, the country will continue to turn out terrorists, even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, along with those in Kashmir, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The roots of terrorism are internal, not external.

The Time For Truth

A situation similar to that in Pakistan exists in several other Muslim-majority countries, many of which are ruled by a single family. True, a few monarchies have introduced reforms, such as Kuwait, where elections take place in which even women have the vote, but others have continued to deny their populations any say in governance. Small wonder that it is in such countries that extremists find fertile ground to recruit the young to their deadly cause.

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be good, but wouldn't solve Pakistan's problems.
Yes, Iraq is important. This writer has consistently supported the right of the Iraqi people to run their own country, rather than have important issues decided from outside. Yes, Afghanistan is important, as is a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensures a prosperous Palestinian territory. For unless people in the Palestinian Territories (who are among the most versatile in the world) are enabled to build up their economy, recruitment will continue to organizations that seek to destroy Israel. Yes, the people of Kashmir need to be assured that their interests and identity will be preserved, so that some in their midst cease to resort to violence and terror in the cause of an independent homeland.

However, what the peoples of the Muslim-majority countries need most is democratic governance, the removal of feudal constraints to personal advancement, and the creation of educational infrastructure that can once again propel Muslims to the forefront of human creativity.

For too long have feudal and other elites fooled the people by blaming on external factors problems caused exclusively by their own oppression and misgovernance. This cloak needs to be pulled away and the truth exposed. Which is the shameful misuse of religion and its symbols to conceal the absence of internal reform. Which is the attempt to divert public attention towards external conflicts in order to prevent people from looking too closely at their own situation and its real causes.

The time for internal reform has arrived.

M.D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair and is director of the Department of Geopolitics at Manipal University in India. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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