Fight terrorism with education

Problem: In many underdeveloped Muslim countries, education is not widely available to all citizens. Many of the children and youth in these countries get their education in small religious schools called madrasahs that teach a strict fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law to their students. Militant Islamic extremists use these schools as a vehicle to recruit potential terrorists.

Solution: The citizens of these countries have shown that they are open to new schools being built with funds and assistance provided by Western nations. These schools encourage women to participate and teach a full curriculum free from fundamentalist teachings. The resulting improvement in literacy and understanding of the outside world creates a more moderate viewpoint and reduces poverty and overpopulation.

Every year, hundreds of wealthy Westerners flock to the Himalayan mountains in Asia in hopes of conquering some of the world’s most challenging peaks. Most will hire local villagers to guide them to the top and carry their gear along the way. These villagers do most of the work for what is usually pennies.

In 1993, the American climber Greg Mortonsen decided to try to climb the famous K2 in Pakistan, one of the highest and most dangerous peaks in the world. Although Mortonsen did not make it to the top, he did learn a great deal about living conditions in this wild and remote region. Mortonsen had become separated from his group on the descent and ended up stumbling down the mountain exhausted and disoriented, and without shelter, food or water. Fortunately, he managed to wander into a small mountain town where the locals took care of him until he was able to regain his strength. As he recovered from his climb, he was shocked to see the rampant poverty and high infant mortality rates (over 30%) common in villages in this area.

When he realized that only less than 3% of the townspeople had achieved literacy, Mortonsen saw how he could more effectively give back to the people who had been so kind to him in his hour of need. Mortonsen felt that education was the key to reducing poverty, lowering infant mortality, and lowering birth rates. He started raising money to help build schools. One of his requirements for building a new school was that he had to allow women to attend. Mortonsen realized that educating women was the key to advancing poverty, infant mortality, and high birth rates.

Mortonsen was onto something. Studies have shown that in countries where women have received more education there are consistent results that improve the quality of life in that country. Poverty rates and infant mortality decline substantially as education increases. Economies grow and birth rates fall as more women enter the workforce. Mortonsen understood that poverty and ignorance are the motivating social factors that fuel religious extremism. If she could reduce ignorance and poverty through education; especially education for women, then it could reduce the incentive for religious extremism that is used to recruit terrorists.

When Mortonsen first started raising money, he didn’t get much of a response from the famous and wealthy people he tried to contact. His best response came from American schoolchildren. A group of elementary school kids in Wisconsin raised over $600 in pennies to help support her cause. This caught the attention of adults who began to take Greg’s mission more seriously and was the beginning of a program called Pennies for Peace. Today, Pennies for Peace educates American school children about life in other countries and shows them how the pennies they raise 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 for the construction of schools and sports facilities.

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

Too often in these regions, the only source of help and support for these villagers comes from Taliban militants or extremist groups financed with money from Saudi Arabia. These groups take full advantage of this dependency to suppress women’s rights and herd youth and children into madrassas when they can be indoctrinated with extreme fundamentalist ideology and then recruited for terrorism. The education provided by CAI schools offers an alternative to this path and the opportunity to improve life in these villages without being beholden to warlords and religious extremists.

When Mortonsen began his mission to provide education and assistance to people in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, he did not enjoy much support at home. Even more daunting was the threat posed by local tribal chiefs and clergy. Several times, Mortonsen came close to giving his life for his mission when angry mullahs issued fatwas on his death who suspected him of being 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 persisted and continued to build schools and relationships until his detractors were convinced of the value of his contributions.

Apparently, the results speak volumes in these impoverished regions. Saeed Abbas Risvi, the top Shiite spiritual leader in Pakistan, was so impressed by Mortonsen’s work that he approached the Supreme Council of Ayatollahs in Iran and managed to get a very rare letter of recommendation for Mortonsen to help protect him from the mullahs and the local clergy. . When 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.

There are many lessons to be learned from the success of the Central Asia Institute and the respect Greg Mortonsen has earned from Muslim leaders. One of them is an economics lesson. Mortonsen has shown that making an investment in reducing poverty and ignorance can be the most profitable solution to terrorism. He says that “if we could turn the million dollars for the purchase of a Tomahawk cruise missile launched on the Taliban into educational assistance, we could deal a serious blow to terrorism.” Another lesson is that educating women may be the most effective way to combat poverty and ignorance. To quote Mortonsen; “Girls’ education is a mighty sword in the war on terror.” He makes you wonder if much of the money spent on the war on terror could have been better spent educating women and reducing poverty and ignorance in places where terrorists are recruited.

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