Fighting Terrorism With Education

Kashmir Family Aid is an Oregon-based nonprofit founded by author and telecommunications executive Sam Carpenter. The group funds secular schools in the Kashmir region in an attempt to combat poverty and, thereby, reduce the number of people from the region entering violent radical groups. TAP spoke with Carpenter about his goals and role in the region.

Daniel Strauss: How will secular education counter terrorism?

Sam Carpenter: What I found was [that] there's three types of schools. There's public schools provided by the government and private schools -- somewhat secular schools that are funded by regular folks over there -- and it's about a 50-50 split. Let me talk about what's taught in those schools: English, math, science, and a reasonable amount of history, and they have textbooks and the whole thing. But there's another kind of school over there, which I'm certain you've heard of, called a Madrassa, and these are religious schools.

The estimates are between fifteen- and twenty-thousand of them in Pakistan alone, and then there's a lot of them in Afghanistan. The long story short is that the kids spend 10 to 12 years -- they go in there at an early age, and they learn the Koran, and that's great, but they don't learn anything else to speak of, a little bit of math, but not much. They come out without a lot of skills. About 15 [percent] to 20 percent I estimate of those schools are what we call militant schools where the kids are taught that, well basically, that the jihad is against the West, and by the time they get out of those schools -- who knows what percentage, but a good number of those students are put right into the jihad ranks and given paid jobs to learn to fight, and so they're paid a very, very high wage, in our money $200 to $300 a month, to carry machine guns and become a jihadist.

Most of the citizenry would much prefer to have the public or private or non-Madrassa-type secular school for their children, but so many times there are no other schools besides the religious Madrassas. These Madrassas are funded by Saudi Arabia cash, and there's a lot of them over there. Greg Mortenson, in his book Three Cups of Tea, talks extensively about this.

D.S.: What is the connection between women's rights and terrorism?

S.C.: Our primary goal is to get these kids a secular education, and then we see what happens when they get it. They're probably going to be teachers and doctors and community people -- organizing people, rather than jihadists, so the primary goal is not to fight terrorism, but that's a very important spinoff.

Most of the women over there pretty much stay at home, do not go out, especially in the rural areas, except to get water, to take care of the fields and so forth, and you talk about women's rights -- this is an amazing place in terms of improving women's rights over the long term. Is it any of our business? I don't know, but I don't think it hurts to teach a child; I just don't see a problem with that, and so whatever comes out of that is probably going to be more a good thing than a bad thing. More education is a better thing. D.S.: What are your goals for the next few years?

S.C.: We're helping about a half a dozen [schools] right now. When you walk in the schools, you see about 200 children with faces and names, and you realize you can do this 200 children at a time, and so instead of looking at the vast challenge over there, we are concentrating on maybe the 1,200 kids that we've been able to directly help, and we're just going to try to expand that number over time.

D.S.: How much opposition is there to your efforts in Kashmir? It's a pretty dangerous region.

S.C.: Last year I was in Azad Kashmir; we were literally thrown out by the chief of police on a technicality. One of the biggest problems we have over there is the corruption of the local officials, and I have been repeatedly petitioned to give the money to the government and let them hand it out. It's incredibly corrupt; that money would never get to the children, and because I insist on paying the teachers in cash and helping the school administrators in cash, we're not real popular over there with the local government officials.

However, the prime minister of Azad Kashmir, who we talked to for about 45 minutes last time we were there, is very, very enthusiastic about us being there. He's fighting this bottom-line corruption, too, and some of the higher officials I've met with, President Musharraf, are very, very interested in going in there and doing exactly what we're doing and bringing those children up and families up into a more educated state.

D.S.: What role do U.S relations with Pakistan have on your work, if any?

S.C.: You know it's an interesting question; it's kind of a love-hate relationship. You talk to the average Pakistani, they don't like America at all, but if you talk to them on a one-on-one level, they like Americans. You get that argument all over the world. "We don't like your government and your policies but we like you people," and I think that's probably pretty true. The government that is in power right now, it's an odd government in the sense that it's less religiously fundamentally driven than it was before, and yet it is in disarray; it's very much in disarray. They can't handle what's happening in their northwest territories. The United States keeps pumping cash into the place because it's an ally. ... There's so much corruption, you don't know which way the government is going, and yet there are these kids that need to learn, and our biggest problem are the adults over there and getting the money to the kids and trying to figure out what's going to happen next.