Does Private Islamic Schooling Promote Terrorism?

An Analysis of the Educational Background of Successful American Homegrown Terrorists. Dr. Danish Shakeel, Harvard University and Professor Patrick Wolf, University of Arkansas, clarify what happens in this kind of systems. Is Islamic schooling in the US associated with homegrown terrorism?


Some commentators argue that private religious schools are less likely to inculcate the attributes of good citizenship than traditional public schools (Gutmann, 1999), specifically proposing that private Islamic schools are relatively more likely to produce individuals sympathetic to terrorism (Stotsky, 2011). This study offers a preliminary examination of the question by studying the educational backgrounds of Western educated terrorists. While data are limited, in accord with prior work (Bergen & Pandey, 2005)

Findings indicate the vast majority of both Islamic and reactionary terrorists attended traditional public schools and had no religious education; hence findings suggest that early religious training and identification may actually encourage prosocial behavior.

With regards to three dimensions (reflection, skills, and attitudes) pupils at Islamic schools score considerably higher than pupils at comparable schools, and still higher than pupils at the average school. Only with regard to knowledge competence do pupils at Islamic schools score nearly the same as pupils at comparable schools, but significantly lower than pupils at the average school. These findings directly challenge the assumption that pupils at Islamic schools are less likely to cultivate the relevant civic virtues for Dutch society at large. Jaap Dronkers, 2016, pp. 14-15.

The late, eminent sociologist Jaap Dronkers possessed an impressive set of academic skills and virtues (Wolf, 2016). He delved, courageously, into controversial topics with an open mind and an incisive set of analytic tools. The fruits of his scholarship included his pioneering study of the civic skills and attitudes of students in private Islamic schools in The Netherlands, published just before his untimely death. Contrary to popular belief, Dronkers concluded, Dutch Islamic schools appeared to be doing a good job of preparing students to be law-abiding, democratic citizens (Dronkers, 2016). In this article, we examine whether Dronkers’ findings regarding Dutch private schools and civic values appear to apply to the U.S. context and the most un-civic of behaviors: terrorism.

Despite the considerable media and law enforcement attention it draws, terrorism in the West is rare, and typically conducted by individuals or small groups, limiting empirical analyses (Biglan, 2015; Berman et al., 2015).10 The extant empirical work on terrorism questions conventional wisdom about the phenomena. Pape’s profiles of modern suicide bombers as of 2003 indicate that religion was a primary motivation in only 5% of cases. Rather “suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than the product of Islamic fundamentalism” (Pape, 2005, p. 237). Terrorism has since evolved, with an incremental rise of Western born and raised individuals joining foreign battlefields or attempting to commit acts of terror in their homelands. Case studies employ political environment and socioeconomic variables to explain these individual decisions to participate in acts of terror. Possible causes of contemporary terrorism include religious indoctrination (Hindery, 2003; Schbley, 2003) and social and psychological alienation (Lyons-Padilla et al., 2015; Stern, 2016).

While studies try to examine potential causal variables that may explain radicalization, the individual, social and political variables involved are endogenous to other key variables such as religion and culture.

Lyons-Padilla et al. (2015) finds that cultural homelessness and attendant alienation among American Muslim immigrants is associated with increased support for fundamentalist groups and extremist causes. Bhatt and Silber (2007) proposes four phases of radicalization for the Western jihadist terrorist: 1) pre-radicalization, 2) selfidentification, 3) indoctrination and 4) jihadization. Religious education may play a role in these phases of radicalization. Often, private Islamic schools are accused of producing individuals who commit acts of terror (Stern, 2000), but Bergen & Pandey (2005) point out that Western jihadists largely do not attend Islamic schools. They note, “while madrassas may breed fundamentalists who have learned to recite the Koran in Arabic by rote, such schools do not teach the technical or linguistic skills necessary to be an effective terrorist.” (Bergen & Pandey, 2005, p. A23) Out of the 75 profiles of terrorists who attacked Western targets, only nine had attended madrasas. Their study did not parse out the data between homegrown vs. foreign terrorists and by schooling type, probably due to small sample size.

Few Western terrorists majored in religion during their religious studies (Gambetta, & Hertog, 2016). Classic work by Hoffer (1951) shows how radicals differ from the rest of society. Since many commentators see religious schooling as a form of indoctrination (Dawkins, 2006; Harris, 2011; Americans United, 2011), it is important to examine possible relationships between religious schooling and terrorism.

The purpose of this study is to offer a preliminary exploration of whether religious schooling in general and Islamic schooling in particular is associated with participation in terrorism. American government and international aid agencies have funded programs to strengthen the educational effectiveness of public schools, but not religious schools, in majority-Muslim nations since September 11, 2001. Efforts to reduce terrorism by replacing religious schools with public schools may be counter-productive. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies in the United States and Europe indicate that private school choice interventions tend to produce positive outcomes for civic values (Wolf, 2007; Forster, 2016), or at least do no harm in that area (Dronkers, 2004; Carlson, Chingos & Campbell, 2017). Thus, carefully designed school choice interventions may decrease terrorism by reducing the numbers of young recruits who attempt to commit violent acts.

To explore the possibility that religious schooling might not be causing, and in fact might be hindering, terrorism, this article analyzes the schooling of native born Americans who succeeded in committing an act of terror inside the United States. We first outline the role of quality instruction grounded in an authentic understanding of Islamic tradition, culture, and values in discouraging terrorism, as well as the role of independent religious schools in delivering such instruction. The paper argues that decentralized and market based schooling better facilitates tolerance in comparison to centralized and government controlled schooling (Berner, 2017; Coulson, 1999; Friedman, 2002; Glenn, De Groof, & Candal, 2012). We suggest that religious extremism and recently Islamic extremism is a byproduct of the lack of access to quality religious education, government hindrance of school choice and the lack of pluralism in public schooling and not necessarily caused by religious schooling. We use the coding of historical cases and summary statistics to support our claims. This preliminary analysis suggests that school choice interventions may, over the long term, reduce the incidence of terrorism in Western societies.

Contextual history and theory of Islamic schooling and organization

Five framing considerations are vital to our exploratory study. First, Islam has a long and storied educational tradition that mainly has been privately operated and decentralized. Second, the major branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia, are distinct in ways that inform our consideration of private school choice and terrorism. Third, traditionalism and fundamentalism is a second distinction within Islam that is largely independent of the Sunni-Shia divide. Fourth, a lack of exposure to high-quality religious instruction appears to be contributing to the modern terrorist activity of some Muslims. Fifth, highquality Islamic religious instruction in the West is likely to be fostered by a system of private Islamic schools financially supported and partially overseen by government.

Islamic schooling tradition

Up to the eleventh century, Islamic schooling was primarily self-funded and philanthropic. Schooling in mosques and in the madrasas took place free of government intervention. Egger (2004, p. 220) notes “[t]he madrasa never displaced the mosque as an educational institution. In fact, Muslims were never precise in distinguishing between the two, because education and worship took place in both.” This period is often remembered as the golden age of Islam due to its high scholarly accomplishment and education attainment. Increased state intervention in schooling starting in the eleventh century occurred contemporaneously with a decline in Islamic scholarship and reduced tolerance of minorities, perhaps reflecting regime goals superseding religious goals. Decentralization and a market orientation were the key attributes of Islamic schooling up to that time (Coulson, 1999; Durrant, 1950, p. 94, 304).

The Sunni-Shia distinction

Religious tradition is often complicated. Much of Sunni Islam is decentralized whereas Shia Islam is essentially centralized. This distinction has important implications. The violent extremists of Sunni Islam become self-empowered and interpret Islam in ways that justify their values and actions (Gambetta, & Hertog, 2016). Sunni extremists practice violence horizontally while Shia extremists do so vertically, meaning that the former harm fellow religious comrades and declare them as apostates while the latter target ‘perceived opponents.’

By every count Al-Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS and other Sunni terrorist organizations have killed far more Sunni Muslims than other groups have done.

On the other hand, Shia Militias seldom attack their co-religionists, largely because Shia central authorities (Ayatollahs) must authorize such violent acts.

Islamic traditionalism versus fundamentalism

The divide between Islamic traditionalism and fundamentalism is central to the schooling and terrorism story. Traditionalism involves following the four jurisprudential schools of thought in Sunni Islam of Hanafi, Shafi’i, Hanbali and Maliki. Fundamentalism rejects these established theological practices and often goes against the theological consensus of the traditionalist interpretations, called the ijma. Traditionalists are less likely than fundamentalists to get involved in terrorism as traditionalists are influenced by historic institutions, scholarly consensus and a variation in interpretation of religious texts, all of which possess market attributes.

Keep reading and access the full article here.

Patrick J. Wolf, Ph.D., is a distinguished Professor and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice, Department of Education Reform, College of Education and Health Professions.

Danish Shakeel, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University, Program on Education Policy and Governance, Kennedy School of Government.

Suggested citation: Shakeel, M. D. & Wolf, P. J. (2018). Does private Islamic schooling promote terrorism? An analysis of the educational background of successful American homegrown terrorists. Hungarian Educational Research Journal, 8(1), 37-54.)

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