JC McIlwaine

World News


Education is the Most Effective Way to Counter Radical Islam

On June 10, 2014, our family returned to Africa as we do every year. Kenya’s Masai Mara was again selected. There were fourteen of us, including twelve family members and two close friends, ranging in age from eight to eighty. The youngest family member had been to Africa six times. Marcia and I first visited Africa in 1970, on a fact-finding mission to review CARE, UNICEF and World Food Program operations in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. We have since been to over twenty-five countries–some a number of times. As a U.S. ambassador from 2002 to 2005, I oversaw three Indian Ocean island nations off the coast of Africa–Mauritius, Comoros, and Seychelles.

On our visit this year we stayed in two tented camps–Bateleur at Kichwa Tembo and Cottar’s Camp. In addition to enjoying the vast savannah with its abundance of wildlife, we visited the Emurutoto Primary School again. Since our first visit twelve years ago the school had grown to almost 400 students with fifteen teachers. The school administrator reviewed with us a list of immediate needs, including adequate toilet facilities for the students, and new housing for the teachers. At the time construction was underway and was being sponsored by Angels in Africa for a new dormitory to house up to 200 girls, who have been sleeping on the dining hall floor. Our son Steven had brought along several soccer balls. It didn’t take long for the grandchildren to be involved with the school children in a scrimmage. On leaving we agreed to build the needed restrooms and teacher housing facilities.

The Price Family Foundation has supported education and cultural programs in Kenya, Tanzania, Mali, Uganda, and Somalia.

In the northern independent state of Somaliland, in conjunction with the Somali and American Fund for Education (SAFE), last year we helped build several primary school classrooms. SAFE’s director Hodan Guled witnessed two decades of civil conflict which has stagnated education in Somalia. SAFE currently focuses on Somaliland which has been a relatively stable region. SAFE’s goal is to improve access to quality education for all Somali children.

In 2014 we will help build classrooms at three village schools near Hargeisa, the capital. The projects will include two classrooms for 150 students at the Xeedho Primary School, and two classrooms for 160 students at the Al Kheyr Primary School—grades one through eight. At the Farah High School, which serves four primary and middle schools, two classrooms will be added to accommodate 60 students. The projects will include toilets, water storage tanks, and administrative offices at each school. With the rain gathering tanks the children will no longer need to go home to drink water and miss class. Since adult education and vocational training are badly needed, evening courses will be provided for those who missed the opportunity to attend school over the past two decades.

Many of the villages still hold classes under trees and canopies–a difficult situation during the rainy season. Somalia has one of the lowest primary school enrollment rates in the world. A determining factor in choosing a school is the villager’s willingness to contribute a modest amount for their children’s future. The Harcadaad and Maraaga Primary School classrooms completed in 2013 will accommodate 200 students. On my visit last year I met with students, teachers, and family members; business and community leaders, who were thankful for the new additions. In meeting with Mrs. Zamzam Abdi Adan the minister of education, she shared with me her insights on the plan to improve education for the growing Somali population.

A UNICEF official noted in Somalia “An entire generation of children has grown up knowing only conflict and fighting [and that] possibly thousands of children have been trained in combat,” proffering “We need to make sure that this generation receives a quality basic education [and] stop being sucked into the continuing violence.” Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania and several other Sahel countries are facing similar circumstances.

An investment in Africa’s education could be the catalyst in winning the war against Islamic extremism. Radical clerics continue to preach hatred and aid in recruiting young boys to join the ranks of al-Qaeda. Military action alone against the insurgents will not end terrorism. The U.S. spends millions of dollars on military armaments, yet education has taken a back seat. Without basic education, eradication of poverty will be difficult. Poverty’s companion is hopelessness–and radical Islam’s supporters are there to fill the void. I believe there is a direct correlation between poverty, education, and terrorism in Muslim societies.

In visiting the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Hargeisa, Somaliland, I was encouraged by the work its founder Jonathan Starr had accomplished. After a visit in 2008, Starr returned and built this high school, to help students gain access to universities in the U.S. and elsewhere. Since the impoverished students have a limited ability to pay for an education they are asked to contribute only what they could afford. Starr recruited teachers from the U.S. and Canada and focuses on math and science. There were 80 boys and 40 girls in the school’s fourth year of operation. I met a boy named Mubarik who came from a refugee camp, and now was being accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a full scholarship. I also met a girl named Nadira who was accepted to Oberlin College on a full scholarship. Four other students from this first graduating class were admitted to U.S. schools on scholarships. I am convinced such education opportunities will lead to young people ‘not’ joining the jihadist movement to engage in terrorism.

Boko Haram (meaning Western education is sinful) was founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in northern Nigeria. The Muslim cleric built a religious school and mosque, where poor families from around the country could enroll their children. He recruited young boys who were poorly educated and unemployed. Yusuf was opposed to Western culture and secular education and did not believe in democratic governance. He wanted the northern states in Nigeria to be governed under Sharia law. In a fight with government troops in 2009, Yusuf was killed, which only further emboldened his followers. They have since destroyed numerous government buildings, schools, and churches, killed male students and kidnapped over 300 female students.

The Arab Spring which led to regime change in North Africa and the Middle East opened the door to new brutal groups of Islamists wanting to destroy Western culture and education, and turn the region into Islamic states ruled under Sharia law—creating a caliphate. Yemen already has seen al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) taking control of a large part of the country’s southern region. Syria is embroiled with al-Nusra Front and other Islamists who have overrun numerous towns. The insurgent group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now controls large swaths of land in both Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate last week. The Islamists believe they will ultimately win. This has added to the success in recruiting impoverished and uneducated young men into their ranks.

An Islamic cleric recently noted: “What we are saying is that the education [in] Western schools [is] not in keeping with the teachings of Islam. It is only making us wayward,” adding “before they become engineers and teachers and doctors, these young people must be trained for jihad.” Similar remarks have indicated that secular education was a real threat to the Islamists, insisting that armed jihad was the only way forward.

Many young recruits have also been indoctrinated in madrassas across America, and have joined the ranks of Islamists in the Middle East. Seif Ashmawi, the late publisher of an Egyptian-American newspaper had stated that radical imams were taking over the leadership of Islamic institutions in the US. This has affected the education of many young Muslims, with secular education being pushed aside. Educators have noted that as long as Islamic clerics continue to preach hatred, young people around the world will continue to be recruited as jihadists. If the U.S. wants to make a real difference in combating the influence of radical Islam, there needs to be a concerted effort to invest in education in the countries at risk, including the United States.