A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Friday, July 07, 2006

The enemy of terrorists? Education

We seem to forget that there are plenty of countries not sitting atop petroleum reserves that are menaced by terrorists who are every bit as much our enemies as Saddam Hussein ever was.

The Taliban (remember them?) is apparently far from willing to concede defeat in Afghanistan. They realize that the only way to control the populace is to keep it mired in ignorance. In particular, it is a cardinal principle of the Taliban to prevent girls from obtaining any sort of an education in Afghanistan:
Unable to win on the battlefield, the Taliban are trying to discredit the Kabul government by blocking its efforts to raise Afghanistan out of its long dark age. They particularly want to undo one of the biggest changes of the past four years: the resumption of education for girls, which the Taliban outlawed soon after taking power in 1996. "The extremists want to show the people that the government and the international community cannot keep their promises," says Ahmad Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Today the Ministry of Education says the country has 1,350 girls' schools, along with 2,900 other institutions that hold split sessions, with girls-only classes in the afternoon. (Coeducation is still forbidden.) More than a third of Afghanistan's 5 million schoolchildren are now girls, compared with practically none in early 1992. In the last six months, however, Taliban attacks and threats of attacks have disrupted or shut down more than 300 of those schools.

Most of the closures have been in the far south, where the Taliban are strongest, but schools are also getting hit in areas that used to be relatively safe, like the fertile river valleys of Laghman province. The rock-walled compound where Nooria attends classes is one of six schools for girls in the province that have been torched so far this year. The damage at two of them was so bad that they remain closed. In nearby Logar province, arsonists have struck 10 sister schools—all within 50 miles of Kabul. "People are extremely frightened," says Palwasha Shaheed Kakar, the AIHRC representative in neighboring Nangarhar province, where at least eight other schools have burned. "These extremists need to attack only one or two schools to send a strong message."

The girls' school in Haider Khani village, just up the main road from Mandrawar, has suffered a sharp drop in attendance since January, when masked gunmen forced their way in and torched the place. Before the attack, up to 80 percent of the families in Haider Khani were sending their daughters to school, according to the principal, Fazal Rabi. An American military Provincial Reconstruction Team quickly repaired the damage and reopened the school. Even so, the principal reckons that only 40 percent of the village's preteen girls came back, and only 10 percent of the teenagers. Parents dread what might happen on the walk to school. Teachers get scared, too. Since the Mandrawar attack, Nooria's teacher, Farida, has traveled to and from school every day wearing a burqa and escorted by a male relative. "Otherwise I fear my nose and hair will be cut off," she told NEWSWEEK.

Even the country's 4,250 boys-only schools are vulnerable to attack. Some enemies of the Kabul government claim that the school system is no more than a plot to impose Western ideas—even Christianity—on the country's Muslim children. Back in February, Taliban fighters threatened to shut down the boys-only school in the town of Ghanzi, an hour's drive north of Kabul, according to Malak Mirza, 55, a local tribal elder. The townspeople sent back a warning that the Taliban would be driven out of the area if the school was attacked. The Taliban relented on one condition: no Christian-ity (which is very occasionally taught in Afghanistan—surreptitiously—by zealous missionaries). They distrust any education that takes place outside madrassas. "These extremists know that educated children are unlikely to follow religious extremism in the future," says Nadery. "The Taliban want to keep us backward."

There's more to read in the whole thing, and I encourage you to read it. It has been my understanding that literacy is basically a requirement if one wants to be a good Muslim, since one must be able to read the Holy Qur'an (in Arabic) in order to remain faithful to its teachings. Islam traditionally accorded tolerance to "the People of the Book"-- Christians and Jews-- whose scriptures contained many of the same concepts and characters. It was the Muslims who preserved thousands of ancient texts that would have been lost forever during the so-called "Dark Ages"-- which makes the vicious denial of female literacy all the more appalling in a Muslim country. Of course, we as educators believe that education is a basic human right. Fortunately, some of the townspeople affected by these Taliban attacks on schools have so far refused to cower.

Are we really staying the course in our fight against known terrorists and avowed enemies? Afghan, NATO, and US forces are preparing to launch Operation Mountain Thrust into southern Afghanistan in response to the chaos there. We cannot sit back while our sworn enemies, who provided aid and training to the perpetrators of September 11, retake territory liberated by the blood of American servicemen and servicewomen, nor can we remain silent at yet another violation of human rights in Afghanistan.


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