Afghanistan taking back madrassas: education minister

Kabul, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's government is setting up its own madrassas, or religious schools, to counter the Taliban's use of education as a "weapon of terrorism," Education Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar says.

The first will be established in two months, with one eventually to open in each of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the minister said in an interview with AFP.

"The enemies of democracy in this country, the enemies of stability in this part of the world, are actually using education as a weapon of terrorism. They have established for some time now across the border hate madrassas," he said.

Afghans from poor backgrounds who are enrolled into these free boarding schools are ripe for recruitment into the Taliban insurgency.

"They teach them hate and they teach them the kind of things that have no consistency with our religion.

"And as a result they get suicide bombers recruited from these madrassas and they get Taliban fighters from these madrassas," said the 39-year-old minister, one of the youngest in President Hamid Karzai's cabinet.

The fundamentalist Taliban were students at madrassas in Pakistan before the government there helped them to seize power in Afghanistan in 1996. They were ousted in a US-led invasion in late 2001.

Atmar said it was now the government's "ethical responsibility" to offer a tolerant and modern Islamic education, as many parents wanted religious schooling for their children.

The planned schools, which Atmar said should initially accommodate up to 50,000 children, are to offer 40 percent religious education, 40 percent general education and 20 percent computer science and foreign languages.

The curriculum would produce graduates who are more employable than those from traditional madrassas whose students could become teachers in religious schools, mullahs or even "join the Taliban ranks," Atmar said.

The schools would be supervised by the ministry and community boards to ensure that teachers did not deviate from teaching a moderate version of Islam, he said.

The minister wants to recruit the best educators for the madrassas but faces a severe shortage of qualified teachers, with a poorly skilled labour force one of the many legacies of 25 years of war.

Around 80 percent of the existing teaching force of about 143,000 is not qualified, he said.

"We have to work on two fronts: one, to train a new generation of teachers with a special focus on female teachers and second to provide in-service training to our existing teachers," he said.

A priority is to boost the attendance of girl pupils with their numbers still far lower than for boys five years after the expulsion of the Taliban regime that did not allow girls to go to school.

"At the moment for every two boys, I have one girl in primary school. But in secondary, for every five to six boys I have one girl," Atmar said. "That ratio must change."

The minister conceded Taliban attacks, such as burning schools, had undermined his ministry's efforts in "small pockets in the country," primarily in the south where the insurgency is the most active.

A total of 44 teachers had been killed in such attacks in 12 months, he said, with most of the killings in the south.

"Six months ago, there was every day two to three incidents happening to our schools, teachers and students. These days it is only two to three incidents a week."

He attributed the fall in part to the establishment of local councils to protect schools and education, both through providing security and increasing public awareness.

And in a country where most people are illiterate -- the statistic rising to 90 percent of rural women, according to the United Nations -- the importance of education takes on particular significance.

"Democracy will never be fully operationalised if people are not able to read and write and if the human capital is not there," Atmar said.