The Dilemma Of Moving Primary Education To Mosques In Afghanistan

By Said Sabir Ibrahimi and Pashtana Durrani

Islamic education is already an integral part of Afghanistan’s so-called “secular” educational system, in addition to pure religious teachings at mosques, madrasahs, and Shariat faculties across the country. But the Education Ministry recently proposed a new policy approach in which Islam will become part of the education ecosystem, and one of the ideas is transferring primary education to mosques.

Last December, acting minister Rangina Hamidi wanted to secure a vote of confidence for her position at the Education Ministry. She delivered a speech in the Afghan parliament and laid out a plan with five pillars for reform in Islamic education, reforms in education and training improving the quality of education, administration, and resources, and strengthening education at provincial levels with formal schools at its center. The acting minister said 2.2 million Islamic books have been printed and distributed, but none of that satisfied the conservative members of the parliament enough to give her the vote.

Part of the plan was to move grades one to three from the formal education system to mosques, but when challenged by Afghan netizens and activists officials said this was only for areas that lacked schools. The new policy remains ambiguous and its effectiveness unknown. Even officials like Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Reconciliation Council, have opposed the move, saying it is “wrong and a mistake.”

Since 2001, after the fall of the Taliban’s tyrannical theocratic regime, there have been significant improvements in the education sector. Some 9.5 children are now in school with a dozen public and private universities and schools operating across the country. Afghanistan spends around 4% of its GDP on education, and half of the expenditure is paid by the international community. There are 270,000 employees at the Education Ministry, although there are concerns about ghost teachers and advisers. At the same time, an estimated 3.7 million Afghan children do not attend school, and many areas of the country lack schools and teachers.

The idea of moving education to mosques raises a set of questions. Is this a measure to bring secular education into mosques or the other way around? How does the ministry plan to provide teachers for the proposed mosque classes? How will it regulate educators? Formal education already faces many operational challenges, with some teachers going unchecked with their mistreatment and abuse of children. The sexual abuse of hundreds of students in Logar Province in 2019 is a case example. How will issues such as corporal punishment be moderated at mosques?

The second set of questions and concerns is about girls. If male imams are in charge, will Afghans in rural areas send their daughters to a mosque to be taught by a man, or will female teachers be trained instead? Some girls enroll in schools a bit late, sometimes around the age of 7 or 8. By the time they are in grade two or three, they may reach the age of puberty. How will the issue of menstruation affect girls’ participation in mosque education? How will the issue of segregation be resolved for communities wishing to segregate? Mosques, especially in rural areas, are usually one big hall where only men are allowed for prayers. Segregated spaces are scarce.

The third area of concern is the radicalization of children in mosques and madrasahs manipulated by jihadi groups such as the Taliban, the Islamic State, and other groups. In early adolescent development, children are more open to learning and capable of absorbing new concepts. Afghanistan is already struggling with containing the radicalization of youth, even within the formal education system. Radicalized groups like Hizb-e-Tahrir, a Salafi movement that operates across the country, carry influence at many universities, which has alarmed government officials. The government is attempting to regulate madrasahs, but it faces resistance.

The Taliban has long called secular education a threat to Afghan culture and Islamic values and has been known to burn down schools and kill teachers. The Taliban’s attitude toward education has barely changed over the past two decades. In the areas it controls, the hard-line movement has introduced more religion into the curriculum. For girls, it has allowed limited education until puberty, and in some areas it has completely banned girls from attending school. Reportedly, as part of the peace negotiations, the Taliban also wants to change the name of the Education Ministry to the Islamic Education Ministry.

Religious education has no doubt been an essential part of Afghan society. Even in major cities, many Afghans attend both mosque and secular education by choice. When necessary, mosques can be used as part of community-based education solutions, but they cannot serve as a substitute to formal schools for the questions raised above and the purpose of mosques in the first place. Mosques are supposed to be sacred spaces for worship and venues for spiritual growth. By design, they are not there to meet the needs of modern education — the same is true of churches and temples. If the counterargument is that the authorities will build the capacity of mosques to provide such substitution, then why not simply build more schools and train more teachers? Let mosques do their job of religious and spiritual education and schools do their job of educating Afghan children in the hard and soft sciences and preparing them for the 21st-century world.

The so-called introduction of Islam into the ecosystem of education and moving primary education to mosques is an attempt to appease the ultra-conservatives and score political points. This move has little positive impact on the quality or quantity of education in the country. Islam has been part of the education system for as long as there has been education. Stakeholders should focus on improving the quality and quantity of the existing formal education system. The focus should be on training competent teachers, building more schools for girls and boys and facilities such as libraries and sanitary toilets, and encouraging critical thinking. Mosques can be used on an ad-hoc basis in some areas, but they should not substitute schools.

This article was originally published in the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Gandhara website. Photo credit Mohammad Ismael (Reuters).

In Afghanistan, Peace Must Come Without Compromising Hard-Earned Gains

By: Said Sabir Ibrahimi

Progress on freedom of speech, political participation, and women’s rights in Afghanistan cannot be compromised.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has announced a road map for peace negotiations with the Taliban. The United States backed Ghani’s proposal for peace and called upon the Taliban to enter negotiations. Thus far there hasn’t been any public response from the Taliban side on the offer.

Over the last 17 years, Afghanistan has achieved some level of social and political progress, including on freedom of speech, political participation, and women’s rights. These achievements are nowhere near perfect but they are positive steps in the right direction and have come at a high cost. As the governments of Afghanistan and the United State push for a political settlement, there are uncertainties on the fate of the past decade-and-a-half’s achievements.   

Under the Taliban’s rule, Afghanistan was one of the most isolated states on earth. Only two countries, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, recognized the theocratic regime. In the absence of media, Afghans knew little about freedom of speech; or if they knew, they could not safely exercise it. There was no such thing as public protest. All forms of entertainment and free speech were banned, including television, print, and radio, except for the Taliban radio, “The Voice of Sharia.”

Today, there are dozens of private and public television channels, over 100 radio stations, and hundreds of press titles in the country. Afghans have established a civil society and have the right to peaceful protests — even in the midst of grave insecurity.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has held three presidential and two parliamentary elections in which millions of Afghan men and women participated. These elections have been imperfect, plagued with vote rigging, and the outcomes have been fiercely contested. Nonetheless, in 2014, the process led to the first peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. According to an Asia Foundation survey, a majority of Afghans supportdemocracy. Meanwhile, the Taliban perceive elections as a Western phenomenon and have not yet indicated whether the group would be interested in participating in such a process.

Most importantly, women’s rights under the current Afghan constitution are guaranteed. Under the Taliban regime, women were barred from attending school or working. Today, Afghan women are visible in every layer of society. They are doctors, engineers, politicians, athletes, police officers, radio and TV presenters, and more. Even so, this improvement in gender parity is minimal. Afghanistan is still one of the worst places for women and scored the lowest in the 2017/18 Women Peace and Security Index.  A compromise to appease the ultra-conservatives could halt the marginal progress that has been achieved in gender equality.

These hard-earned gains have come at an immense cost to Afghans, Americans, and their allies. Thousands of Afghan military personnel, as well as allied forces, have given their lives in fighting the Taliban and other terrorist groups in the country. In 2017 alone, 6,700 Afghan security forces were killed and 12,000 wounded. Since 2001, 3,546 coalition forces have died — among them 2,408 Americans. Thousands of Afghan civilians have also lost their lives. From 2009 to 2017 alone, 28,000 civilians died and more than 50,000 were injured. Additionally, billions of dollars have been spent; the United States alone has spent more money on the war in Afghanistan than on the Marshall Plan for reconstruction of post World War II Europe.

After all this sacrifice and 40 years of conflict, the Afghan people want peace. Recently, the message of peace was reiterated at the Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan in Uzbekistan. The Afghan government has offered enter into negotiations without preconditions, a great concession. Peace must come, but it must come without compromising hard-earned gains, especially not at the cost of setbacks to the freedom of speech, political participation, and women’s rights. Afghanistan should not be understood as homogeneous but as a diverse society. An inclusive peace process that can represent the interests of rural and urban populations and has the genuine support of the international community is needed. Afghans can achieve a sustainable peace only when the rural and urban interests are served in a representative system, not in an isolated theocratic regime.

This article was originally published in the Diplomat Magazine. Photo credit: AP through ABC.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Opinions expressed in this article are personal.

A Tale of Two Pakistans: National Identity and the Hazaras


The Hazara community has been the target of negative political rhetoric and active violence since the end of the 19th century. Originally from the mountainous region of Hazarajat in the heart of Afghanistan, war, instability, and the urge to control this strategically located area, a branch of Hindu Kush, created diaspora communities outside Afghanistan. The composition of the communities is mostly people of Pakistani and Iranian descent.

Although the majority of Hazaras are practicing Shi’as, there are also small Ismaili and Sunni communities. Hazaras are believed to belong to the Turkic-Mongolian ethnic family group represented by their language, the Dari dialect derived from Persian, and their physical appearance, resembling that of Central Asian peoples.

In Pakistan, Hazara people are the most numerous in Quetta, the capital city of the Balochistan province, tangential to Southern Afghanistan. Tensions have risen during the last month with an outburst of violence on the 30th of April, the fourth that occurred in a short period of time. The causes are a mix of two variables worth considering: terrorist groups in constant battle with Shi’a worshippers and the failure of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to protect the right of its minorities due to nescience and actively turning a blind eye, a direct result of the creation of a homogeneous national identity and political decentralization.

Pakistani nationalism has served as a leading cause of the insufficient protection of minorities. When Muhammad Ali Jinnah the Governor-General and the President of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947, his vision was inclusive of the people living under the flag of the partitioned land. However, as it has happened for many other children of decolonization, the aim of the central government has been to create a homogeneous identity, praising orthodox Muslim rules over the rest in the course of history, and naming Islam, Sunni Islam, as the ultimate characteristic of the Land of the Spiritually Pure, which is what “Pakistan” stands for.

Secondly, it is the evolution of the Two-Nation theory that represented the intellectual basis for the partition of British India into two (later three) different entities in which religion appears as the defining cause. Muslims and non-Muslims were two different nations, understood as in the West,  and hence needed two different States. The idea of Pakistan as the homeland of Indian Muslims (and not of all Muslims, as it does not aspire to become an Islamic State) leaves many other communities– originally from abroad– out of this equation. Pakistan’s “blasphemy laws,” which are not exclusive to the country as over 70 others still have them, target religious minorities, pursue national identity uniformity, and combat terrorist groups. Human Rights Watch reported that at the end of 2017, 19 people still remained on death row for such accusations.

Amidst the ongoing attempt to build the Pakistani character lies the variable of terrorism in Balochistan. Separatist armed groups, the national Army movements, and the Taliban, along with the presence of ISIS, have found a viable getaway from the Middle East in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. These issues have been the cause of the pandemonium experienced by the local population. They have claimed responsibility for the majority of the attacks against the Hazaras. Even though the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) recognizes that terrorism present in the country has declined 16% during 2017, violence in the Balochistan province continues to be on the rise; as such, terrorism is likely to prevail as ISIS terror continues.

Pakistan is constantly adjusting to the volatile political dynamics of the country where stability has been made synonymous with homogeneity. If Pakistan fails in creating an inclusive national identity by disregarding minorities in the hopes of a homogenous community in religious and ethnic terms, the Hazaras will continue to live unprotected. Moreover, the presence of terrorist groups has created a prelude for ethnic and religious violence. As the state sponsors a correct interpretation of Islam via blasphemy laws, tensions will rise in an already divided society. How can security be brought to Hazaras when there is such utter confusion?

Andrea G. Rodriguez is an international security analyst. She holds a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid. She has been part of several mobility programs, including at Charles University in Prague, where she studied Geopolitics and International Security, and at the National Taiwan University, where she focused on Asian security issues.

Photo Credit: Hazara News

The article was originally published on Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights of Afghan Affair, which take no institutional positions.