Your Tax Dollars, Building Madrassahs


U.S. News & World Report has come out with a l-o-n-g article detailing the "Muslim World Outreach"—Washington's varied and overlapping attempts at winning hearts and minds in the Islamic world. It's a decent backgrounder on the bureaucratic struggles over Public Diplomacy, and the strategic connections between the Cold War and the War on Terror. Two things that jumped out as being new to me—the extent to which we've gotten into the madrassah-building business, and the central role being played by USAID:

Many of the shock troops for America's new war of ideas are coming not from the CIA, nor from the State Department, but from the low-profile U.S. Agency for International Development. In the three years since 9/11, spending by the government's top purveyor of foreign aid has nearly tripled to over $21 billion, and more than half of that is now destined for the Muslim world. Along with more traditional aid for agriculture and education are the kind of programs that have spurred change in the former Soviet Union–training for political organizers and funding for independent media. Increasingly, those grants are going to Islamic groups.

"Muppet diplomacy." Records drawn from the State Department, USAID, and elsewhere reveal a striking array of Islamic projects bankrolled by American taxpayers since 9/11, stretching to at least 24 countries. In nine of them, U.S. funds are backing restoration of Muslim holy sites, including historic mosques in Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. In Kirgizstan, embassy funding helped restore a major Sufi shrine. In Uzbekistan, money has gone to preserve antique Islamic manuscripts, including 20 Korans, some dating to the 11th century. In Bangladesh, USAID is training mosque leaders on development issues. In Madagascar, the embassy even sponsored an intermosque sports tournament. Also being funded: Islamic media of all sorts, from book translations to radio and TV in at least a half-dozen nations. Often the aid doesn't need an explicit Islamic theme, as in what boosters are calling Muppet Diplomacy. An Arabic version of Sesame Street has become one of the most popular shows on Egyptian TV, and along with lessons on literacy and hygiene, the program stresses values of religious tolerance. Among the show's key backers: USAID, which is helping bring out a pan-Arab satellite edition this year. […]

A World Bank study puts the number of madrasah students in Pakistan alone at nearly 500,000. To attack the problem, U.S. officials are employing a variety of tactics. Perhaps the most surprising program is in Uganda, which hosts a large Muslim minority. Last year, the embassy announced it was funding construction of three Islamic elementary schools. "We're in the madrasah business," quipped one terrorism analyst. […]

The agency is working through private foundations and the Pakistan Ministry of Education on what officials call a "model madrasah" program that may eventually include over a thousand schools.