Newswise — With Pakistan much in the headlines in recent years—and especially in recent weeks—Islamic educational institutions there have received intense public scrutiny. These religious schools, madrassahs, are often portrayed in the popular press as closely linked to militancy and jihadist activity.

But much of this view has relied on anecdotes and visiting journalists.

Now a new book, Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan's Madrassahs, by University of Vermont professor Saleem H. Ali analyzes these diverse seminaries in Pakistan with a rigorous scientific approach and a wealth of local knowledge.

"This is the first empirical study of madrassahs in Pakistan, both rural and urban," Ali says, drawing on his survey work in Islamabad and elsewhere.

The book was release by Oxford University Press on March 15, 2009.

The aim of the book is to shine light on what role Islamic education plays in causing regional and international conflicts, Ali says. He hopes it will help "to prevent the escalation of existing regional conflicts as well as the perceived conflict between Islam and the West," he says, "while providing guidance to policymakers regarding their attempts to reform educational institutions."

"Madrassahs are a problem in many cases," Ali says, "but they're more of a problem within Islamic society, heightening tension between Sunni and Shia," he says.

Reviewers, like Hassan Abbas at Harvard University, have praised the book for its nuanced approach and reliance on empirical data to show Islamic education as a diverse social movement—instead of just focusing on curriculum as previous books have.

"Today, many madrassahs stifle pluralism," Ali says, "but they weren't like this historically. Non-Muslims once sent their children to madrassahs, but they have been coopted by political elements."

"That golden age is gone," he says, "but it can be brought back," with the right incentives and reform plans.

"Madrassahs are providing free education for the masses," so what they do is hugely influential, Ali says, "but now they have been manipulated and the students have too often become foot soldiers."

As a conclusion to his analysis, Ali proposes a range of reforms. "I have clear concrete solutions," he says, including promoting practical internships through madrassahs, like nursing. "Students would be still doing God's work, but they'd be contributing functionally to society," he says. "All that madrassahs can do now is make more madrassahs."

Ali's own education in Pakistan and the United States helps shape the complex themes of the book, yielding a more subtle story than the one typically told on CNN about madrassahs as one-dimensional training grounds for extremists.

The book carefully works between two poles, "moving away from both the propagandist negative accounts about madrassahs," he notes, "as well as the naively positive accounts that downplay the impact of traditional education on Islamic society."

And it's a contested, multilayered middle ground that Ali himself occupies. He writes, "I do not feel obliged to disavow Islamic traditions or practice as a necessary prerequisite for being an 'educated' individual. For this, I was once accused by a devoutly secular friend of 'running with the hares while hunting with the hounds.' If being conciliatory towards age-old belief systems, and willing to embrace multiple identities is tantamount to being on both ends of the food chain, I am content with my ambivalence."

"Nevertheless," he continues, "there is a need to make tough policy choices as we negotiate the limits of tolerance in education."

Saleem Ali is associate professor of environmental policy and planning in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. He is currently on sabbatical at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

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Islam and Education