In the December 1 New York Review of Books, William Dalrymple takes an illuminating look inside the madrasas. Just as Peter J. Boyer’s New Yorker article a few months back drew important distinctions between Christian fundamentalists and Evangelicals (see this earlier post), Dalrymple points out that few of the al Qaeda terrorists who have mounted attacks on targets in the West are products of the notorious madrasa system, which some have labeled as terrorist training camps.
In fact, the madrasas vary widely, as one would expect. Even the most militant, however, tend only to produce foot-soldiers in regional conflicts — Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan — while the terrorists that attack the West tend to be sophisticated, Western-educated and anything but poor:
It is now becoming very clear … that producing cannon fodder for the Taliban and educating local sectarian thugs is not at all the same as producing the kind of technically literate al-Qaeda terrorist who carried out the horrifyingly sophisticated attacks on the USS Cole, the US embassies in East Africa, the World Trade Center, and the London Underground. Indeed, a number of recent studies have emphasized that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between madrasa graduates — who tend to be pious villagers from impoverished economic backgrounds, possessing little technical sophistication — and the sort of middle-class, politically literate global Salafi jihadis who plan al-Qaeda operations around the world. Most of these turn out to have secular and technical backgrounds. Neither bin Laden nor any of the men who carried out the Islamist assaults on America or Britain were trained in a madrasa or was a qualified alim, or cleric. (Emphasis added.)
Dalrymple goes on to explain that bin Laden and his gang are in fact impatient with the kind of nitpicky Islam promoted by the Taliban.
Understanding these distinctions is increasingly important, and Dalrymple’s article is a useful read for anyone who hopes to get past stereotypes and truisms and gain a realistic picture of what is, and what is not, part of the terrorist threat that America faces.