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.

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  1. I can only hope that the people who are recieving our largess are less ignorant than we are of the source of these funds.

  2. It’s all part of the “No Mullah Left Behind” Act.

  3. Nemo — Doh! That shoulda been the headline….

  4. Pay them off . . . sounds like the Islamic Protection Racket to me. Give them money, make them like us. Ridiculous.

    Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.

  5. Matt,
    FYI, madrassah means “school” in Arabic. It is used to describe both religious schools and regular schools (the vast majority of schools).

  6. I was also struck by this graf:

    The role of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly come up in discussions of the new strategy, sources say. Fueled by its vast oil wealth, the Saudis are estimated to have spent up to $75 billion since 1975 to expand their fundamentalist sect, Wahhabism, worldwide. The kingdom has funded hundreds of mosques, schools, and Islamic centers abroad, spreading a once obscure sect of Islam widely blamed for preaching distrust of nonbelievers, anti-Semitism, and near-medieval attitudes toward women. Saudi-funded charities have been implicated in backing jihadist movements in some 20 countries. Saudi officials say they’ve cracked down on extremists, but U.S. strategists would like to see opportunities for less fundamentalist brands of Islam. Reform may be more likely to come from outside the Arab world. “Look to the periphery,” predicts a knowledgeable official. “That’s where change will come.” One solution being pushed: offering backdoor U.S. support to reformers tied to Sufism, a tolerant branch of Islam (box, Page 32).

    Italics mine. From this description, it doesn’t sound like the House of Saud needs to be too worried.

  7. When I took Arabic in college we would watch that Sesame Street, and I gotta say it really rocked.

  8. a — In the U.S. News usage, there seems no doubt that they’re talking about religious schools.

  9. Mr. MacCanles,

    If one of the goals of spending dollars on inner city schools and other projects is to reduce crime, is that “tribute?”


    If the point is to convince people that being a good Muslim in perfectly compatible with not violently hating Americans, wouldn’t insisting that the schools be secular be a little counterproductive?

  10. joe — I wasn’t insisting that the schools be secular; just passing along some interesting information that I did not know.

    Though as the story suggests, the taxpayer funding of religious schools overseas may be unconstitutional.

  11. I wonder when the extreme wingers of the right will start screaming about building the temples of an ‘evil’ faith, and the wingers of the left about building temples at all. Hmmmm…

  12. As sure as the call to prayer will come tomorrow, someone on the religious right will soon ask why it’s okay for American taxpayers to fund religious schools overseas but not here in America. That’ll be fun.

    I am skeptical in regards to the persuasive power of Ernie and Bert. Can anyone point to a study showing that someone once learned something from Sesame Street?

    …It sounds like they’re trying the same tactics they use in the War on Drugs, doesn’t it? Go big with the propaganda; hit the kids while they’re in school. Just say no to fanaticism!

  13. As someone who’s always been interested in the history of Central Asia, I have to say that I’m glad that some money is being spent to preserve and restore some of the ancient buildings and documents in that region. I was always saddened by pictures of present-day Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent – so little is left of the rich legacy of those cities.

    Now, as to whether this investmen will make the Muslim world love us, I have my doubts – still, it’s a more positive role for the US to play than a purely military and coercive one.

  14. “Can anyone point to a study showing that someone once learned something from Sesame Street?”

    Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinqo, ses, siete, ocho, nueve, dias. Phonetic.

    So there.

  15. Matt:
    “In the U.S. News usage, there seems no doubt that they’re talking about religious schools.”

    I’m aware of that. But some people when quoting statistics about Saudi spending on general schools, they make it sound as if the spending is on religious schools only. They do this either in ignorance or maliciously.

  16. joe,
    Damn, that was my example too. I took AP Spanish 5 and I still count to 10 in Spanish in that stupid song form.

    Am I the only one that finds is slightly confusing that the English term religious Islamic school is the same word as school in Arabic? The whole madrassah thing always threw me off because of that.

  17. I wonder what Bush will think when he reads this in the newspaper in a few weeks.

  18. Mo, try to speak the English alphabet without falling into the cadence of the Alphabet Song.

    Go ahead, try it.

  19. Come on, swami, Bush doesn’t read newspapers.

  20. I think swami as referring to the passport story the other day.

    I see this as just another neocon plot. Look at the the harm federal spending has done to the US education system. What better way to destroy the Islamic education system than flood it with Uncle Sam’s greenbacks. First subsidies, then control. Wait until they have to follow Title IX. Bwahahaha!

  21. It’s all part of the “No Mullah Left Behind” Act.

    I can’t imagine why(snicker), but this reminds me that Utah has opted out of the “No Child Left Behind” Act. 😉,1280,-4949587,00.html

  22. Ken Shultz, my dear…

    I learned lots from Sesame Street. I learned how to read from Sesame Street. That may not be a government study, but it’s true!

    And, do you really want the government funding religious schools? Come on. I don’t believe that for a second.

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