The Taliban's Most Dangerous New Weapon? Philanthropy For Islamic Education


If a frequent traveler to Thailand goes around the country today, a rapid rise in the prominence of Muslims will be noticed, stretching from Chiang Rai in the north of the country right down into the south of the country. Many of Thailand's 6-7 million Muslims are totally integrated into Thai culture and society, a country that takes great pride in its cultural homogeneity. However, in the south of Thailand, many, if not most Muslims still live in close-knit rural villages undertaking traditional activities such as rubber tapping, fishing, and rice farming. A distinct culture, different from the mainstream Thai culture, has been nurtured in the relaxed air of religious freedom in Thailand.

Generally speaking, there is a great contrast economically between the rural Muslims of Southern Thailand and the rest of the community. The incidence of poverty among Muslims in Southern Thailand is high. To many Muslims, however, this is not considered a problem as a simple religious-based lifestyle is deeply valued. Indeed, it is often perceived to offer protection to the community from external "morally corrupting forces."

As a consequence, many rural Muslim parents prefer to send their children to one of the hundreds of Islamic schools around the south of the country. Many, if not most of these schools are set up and staffed by the communities themselves, providing an Islamic education in addition to the primary and secondary school national curriculum.  

A few lucky students may get a place in the prestigious and well equipped Pondok Bantan in Nakhon Si Thammarat, founded by the recently retired Secretary General of Dr. Surin Pitsuwan of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and his family, or one of the local Islamic Council schools, which are also relatively well equipped. Pondok Bantan has been generously funded by a number of Middle Eastern sources, including the Islamic Development Bank, as well as the Sasakawa Peace Foundation based in Japan. However, the majority of Muslims must opt for one of the local schools set up by one of the members of the community.   

These local community schools operate with the minimal infrastructure and facilities. Classrooms are grossly inadequate, with poor libraries and few other teaching resources available. There is a drastic shortage of teachers for national curriculum subjects, and schools must often rely upon volunteers to assist. In the schools or "pondoks" where students are resident, students are often forced to sleep up to 10 students per hut, which is barely habitual and potentially a fire and disease trap. As national curriculum studies are of a low standard in the Islamic schools, they attract little government funding in the competitive private school environment of Thailand.

In addition to the above problems, a number of other problematic issues exist within these schools around Southern Thailand today.

Firstly, the religious curriculum is set by local Ulama or religious scholars. The majority of Ulama themselves came through the "pondok" system and have little, if any trans-disciplinary or holistic educational experience. They tend to see the world the way that they were taught to through their own education. This has led to great emphasis on Fard'ain (compulsory duties a Muslim must perform such as prayer) aspects of Islam, at the expense of Fard Kifayah (duty out in the world). This "narrow" approach to the holism of Islam may hinder students' ambitions and abilities to integrate within mainstream Thai society.

Secondly, it is very difficult to get any unified approach to education in these schools, as Islamic leaders in Southern Thailand are fragmented and are sometimes competitive with each other rather than cooperative. This leaves the community without any answers or any common approach towards problems. 

Due to the diversity of interpretation, there are very few safeguards against the infiltration of distorted fringe views about the meaning of Koranic texts. Although regional Islamic Councils have the responsibility to monitor religious teaching within their regions, there are no requirements for any teachers to conform to any agreed or centralized interpretation. If unchecked, religious schools and pondoks could become potential breeding grounds of deviant teachings, further isolating students from mainstream Thai society.

For many of Southern Thailand's Muslim youth, the pondoks have become a refuge where students can drift in and out of society as they feel. Very few students ever get to a university or acquire the skills to open a business. This tends to reinforce a separate identity with Islamic values, rather than encouraging students to encompass the aims and values of the the general community.

The above is compounded by the generally poor standard of national curricula education. Students that complete their education within the Islamic school system are at a great disadvantage to those who have attended secular schools focusing purely on the national curriculum. This generally hinders rural Islamic communities participating in the current economic growth and development going on today in Southern Thailand, thus widening the income gap and perpetuating relative poverty among southern Thai Muslim communities.

If this gap continues to widen, this may lead to some groups questioning the equity distribution of Thailand. That could potentially lead to some form of resentment or allow other groups to take advantage of the situation by introducing new, possibly dangerous dogma into the community. However, as of today, there are no links with the fragmented insurgency groups in the troubled provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala. This is fundamentally a separate and little-acknowledged problem.

Funding, and in particular the lack of grants and donations coming into these schools, is causing immense hardships. Islamic schools in Southern Thailand are neglected, and this is of particular concern when education is a major contributor to the capacity of any community to improve general wellbeing. With international agencies unaware of or ignoring the problem, the gap in assistance has meant that schools are open to any potential benefactors who are willing to assist. One group that has moved into this vacuum is the Pakistan-based Taliban, now funding a number of schools around the southern provinces, where the funds are gratefully accepted.

From a geopolitical perspective, there doesn't appear to be any link between these donations and any militant philosophy on the part of the schools. This issue highlights the problems that the U.S. "War on Terror" should be dealing with around the world, but is failing to recognize, let alone act upon. The war on terrorism can only be won through assisting in the education and development of Muslim communities around the world, and not by the drone warfare that is apparently the method of choice by the U.S. administration today. What is happening in Southern Thailand shows a need for policy re-evaluation.

There are large numbers of southern Thai Muslims who would prefer a religious-based education; this is a basic human right. However, it is also important that the best possible well-rounded education is provided if southern Thai Muslim youth are to be empowered to become citizens contributing to the communities they belong to. This is not calling for them to adopt the same growth paradigms other communities pursue, but rather seeing the need to empower today's youth to participate in economic, social, and spiritual development the Islamic way. Development agencies must see this need before the potential problems outlined above fester into realities that will be much more complex to repair in the future.

The Taliban now understand that the battle for "hearts and minds" is an important facet of their international strategy. They have opened up philanthropy as a new front in the "War on Terror."

Is there anybody out there willing and able to compete?