The Taliban in Afghanistan have been relegated to thedustbin of history. Broadcasts showing prisoners being led intocaptivity, with hands and feet bound and hoods on their heads, symbolizethe extent of the Taliban's fall from power.

Apart from the firepower that America brought to destroy them, oneof the main reasons they collapsed was that even the Pushtun tribes fromwhom they came considered them upstarts of a particularly unpleasant andintolerant nature. Had the Pushtun supported them, it would have been alonger and bloodier conflict.

And once Pakistan, the patron of the Taliban, withdrew its supporton the ground, the Taliban could not sustain their rule.

But has the system that produced the Taliban also been affected byAmerica's war? This is the problematic question.

The word "taliban" simply refers to students of religious schoolscalled "madrassahs." Both words, "talib" (the singular form of "taliban")and "madrassah," are now internationally recognized, although not alwaysused correctly. John Walker, described as an American Taliban, is, ofcourse, an American talib.

A madrassah consists of young Muslim boys -- starting as early as 4or 5 years old -- learning the Quran. It would be similar to a Jewishschool teaching the Torah, or a Christian school teaching the Bible. Agood religious school does not pose a problem for society, and a goodIslamic school is no exception. The problem is what is taught in themadrassah.

Having talked to people running these schools in Pakistan, Iconcluded the problem is with the syllabus and the lack ofextracurricular activity. With the existing structure, students dolittle more than rote memorization of the Quran. Students learn that"jihad," or holy war, is an essential part of faith. They are thusprimed to finish school and look to join any jihad being fought in theregion.

When I argued with the teachers in madrassahs about the need tostudy other great thinkers like Sigmund Freud or Max Weber, I was metwith an uncomprehending stare. I realized the depth of the problem whenI even received a negative response to my suggestion that Muslimscholars such as historian Ibn Khaldun or mystic poet Mowlana Rumi betaught.

"Islam is a religion of peace and understanding," I said, quotingthe Quran. One verse says you must be tolerant of others. Another tellsus to look at the tribes and the nations around us and appreciate theirdiversity.

Muslims like Khaldun and Rumi achieved great heights in their fieldswhile living and teaching the universal compassion that is Islam.

Yet we know that the Taliban acted to challenge this veryinterpretation of Islam. Women and minorities were harassed and treatedas second-class citizens, not even as Muslims.

I believe a significant proportion of the huge amount of aid goingfrom the West to Afghanistan and Pakistan should be earmarked forreformation of the madrassah, for which there is a glorious tradition inthe region.

It is estimated there are about 50,000 madrassahs in Pakistan alone.This may be a rough and ready figure, but it illustrates the scale ofthe problem. Unless what is taught and how it is taught is seriouslychanged, the mentality and behavior that we associate with the Talibanwill continue to be reflected in the students that emerge from theseschools.

For the vast majority of Pakistanis, there is no other educationalchoice but the madrassah. Very few can afford expensiveEnglish-speaking, Westernized schools located in the larger cities. Sothe madrassah plays an indispensable role in the life of the communitythat cannot be wished away.

The question of Islamic education is a poignant one for a Muslim. AMuslim is aware of the great Islamic tradition of respect for learning.

"Go unto China to seek knowledge," the prophet said in the seventhcentury, when China was little more than symbolic of a civilization thatfew could think of visiting. It represented an alien and exotic culture.Yet a good Muslim must acquire knowledge from as far away as China tofulfill the obligation contained in his or her faith.

If this philosophy were repeated in the madrassahs, along with theteaching of the great Muslim scholars such as Khaldun and Rumi, thestudents would be more in tune with mainstream Islam.

They would understand that jihad first and foremost means to elevateoneself to a higher moral position, and not to inflict violence onothers. They would appreciate the need to be kind and compassionate tothe less privileged. As grown men, they would not be so inclined totreat women and minorities as the Taliban treated them in Afghanistan.Men like Osama bin Laden would find few supporters among such students.

If extracurricular activities included sports and debates, allowingcompetition with other schools, it would also channel their energiesmore constructively. There is nothing like extracurricular activity todevelop young personalities and make them sociable.

Teachers too should be provided the opportunity to participate intraining programs, both within and outside the country. Muslim andnon-Muslim teachers from around the world should be encouraged tointeract with madrassah teachers. This interaction would be of mutualbenefit and teach both something of their profession.

With the reformation of the madrassah in Muslim society, the chancesfor greater understanding between Islam and the West are dramaticallyimproved.
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