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(DV) Lopez-Calderon: Our Homegrown "Madrasahs"







Our Homegrown “Madrasahs”
by Michael Lopez-Calderon
October 27, 2001

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Much has been made of the deplorable state of education that exists in Pakistan's foreign-aided, private Islamic schools known as madrasahs.  There are an estimated 8,000 officially registered and another 25,000 unregistered madrasahs in Pakistan.  Almost one million young males attend these schools, a majority of them from impoverished indigenous and Afghan refugee families, and a smaller, though not insignificant number of them orphans. (1) For most of these families and their male offspring, this is the closest thing they will ever have to a formal education.  And for the orphans, many of them Afghans, the madrasah is the closest thing to a home, with shelter, three daily meals, and nurturing provided free.


The deplorable state of these private schools stems largely from three conditions: the denial of a well-grounded, universal education provided by qualified instructors, the exclusion of females, and the emphasis on Wahhabi Islam to the exclusive of any other interpretations of Islam. The womanless environment of these schools may explain in part the misogyny of the Taliban; a majority of its leadership and many of its warriors are alumni of the Pakistani madrasahs. Young boys are directed by a teacher, a white-turbaned maulvi, who often lacks any pedagogical credentials but compensates for this shortcoming with a fanatical zeal for the faith. Pashto and Urdo-speaking boys are compelled to read the Qu'ran and Hadith in Arabic, a language they neither speak nor comprehend.  Learning is by rote, and often consumes up to twelve hours a day, with one hour for martial arts as the only means of physical education. In most of these schools, the only subject matters studied are the Qu'ran, al-sharia (Islamic law), and the teachings of the Prophet, the Hadith. "There is no instruction in math, science, geography, current events, or history beyond the Muslim world." (2) The schools' narrow curricula derives from Saudi Arabia, the primary exporter of a puritanical and intolerant brand of Islam known as Wahhabism -- the brand of Islam practiced by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban -- thus making the madrasahs among the world's worst practitioners of educational malfeasance.


While the poor state of education in the Pakistani madrasahs calls out for international assistance and reform, we would be remiss to ignore the sectarian schools in America, indeed our homegrown madrasahs.  I should know, I taught in one for nearly five years.


Judaic Studies Drown Out Secular Education   


While a number of American Christian fundamentalist private schools perpetuate a narrow curricula and sectarian group identity, my primary focus is on the Orthodox Jewish day schools for two reasons: first, having taught in one, I have firsthand experience with such schools, and second, unlike Christian fundamentalist schools, Orthodox Jewish day schools strongly link themselves to a foreign state, Israel.


First and foremost, I must clarify that while various strains of militant Orthodoxy and religious Zionism exist in a number of American Orthodox Jewish day schools, they are not nearly as isolated from a liberal education as the Pakistani madrasahs.  Nor do they instill a tolerance for violence and xenophobia.  Nonetheless, disturbing parallels exist.  Both types of schools instill an absolute, strict interpretation of religious doctrine and an adherence to a literal reading of their respective sacred texts.   Both display contempt for and distrust of modernity, liberalism, pluralism, and secularism.  Both encourage some form of misogyny.  Both types of schools serve as feeder belts to extremist elements - madrasahs provide warriors for the Taliban and Orthodox Jewish schools churn out fanatical settlers. 


The Orthodox Jewish day school where I taught high school social studies -- what was part of the separate, secular studies curricula known as "general studies" -- is considered one of the more liberal of the Orthodox Jewish day schools in South Florida.  Evolution is taught in the science classes; co-ed classes exist, starting with the ninth grade; non-Orthodox Jewish students attend classes; and a memorial was held in honor of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, much to the annoyance of many in the community.  However, it became evident that with each succeeding graduation ceremony I attended -- when graduates heaped praise on their Judaic teachers to the near total exclusion of the secular staff -- the secular curricula primarily existed to meet state accreditation requirements and little else.  All of the secular staff's efforts to instill a humanistic, multi-dimensional education were overwhelmed by the pressures of religious dogma and ethnic-tribal identity that was openly encouraged by young, militant rabbis and female Judaic instructors.  Few events brought that militancy to a crescendo like the flare up of the al-Aqsa intifada.


Brimming Beneath the Surface


From August 1996 until September 2000, to favor the Oslo peace process while teaching at an Orthodox Jewish day school was akin to walking on eggshells.  And to advocate justice and statehood for the Palestinians was to commit employment suicide.  Thus, such opinions had to be bottled up and shared with only a trusted few secular staff members. (3)  An overwhelming majority of the rabbis and female Judaic instructors professed deep dissatisfaction with the Oslo Peace Accords. 


The pro-expulsion group was led by a number younger, more militant rabbis -- the frum Black Hats (4) -- and included among their ranks were members of Young Israel, a particularly militant religious Zionist movement. (5)


Teaching in an Orthodox Jewish day school is no piece of cake, especially in one located just blocks north of South Beach -- the sun-soaked, hedonistic capital of America.  A mixture of Jewish teens from secular and observant households, boys and girls, increased the tensions that mark American Judaism. (6)  But for all of the divisions among American Jews, nothing unifies them like a perceived threat to Israel's existence.  And nothing cracks up that unity like the threat of peace with the Palestinians.


It was especially difficult as a social studies teacher to witness the difficulty Orthodox Jews had with the threat of peace in Palestine.  The peace they mostly favored was one of submission to Israeli hegemony or better, the "voluntary" transfer of the "Arabs" into other Arab lands.  From August 1996 to September 2000, most of tensions at the Academy derived from battles over Jewish identity, the "who is a Jew?" controversy.  However, sporadic opposition to Oslo was expressed.  On average, the school held three-to-four assemblies per year devoted to right-wing opponents of the peace process.  Invited guest speakers exclusively consisted of representatives from AIPAC, the ultra-Orthodox community, and right-wing Israelis.


One People, One Viewpoint, One Land


There was never any effort to listen to, learn from, or understand any Palestinian perspective, no matter how moderate or accommodating.  The ground work was laid for the most militant, intolerant brand of religious Zionism, even among the secular students.  And as their social studies teacher, this issue was verboten.  No official requests to avoid this topic were made; however, it was understood that the Israel-Palestine matter was better left to the Judaic staff.


When the al-Aqsa intifada erupted, whatever restraints remained were removed. "I hate all Arabs," said one senior as she asked me to evaluate her college admissions essay that defended the maximum Zionist position.  "I hate Arabs.  I know its wrong to generalize, but with Arabs, I make an exception," said a male senior said during American government.  "You have to beat these people [Palestinians] with a stick, that's all they understand," an ultra-Orthodox rabbi confided to a colleague.   "We should expel them, simply make them leave," another rabbi insisted.  "Barak, just like Rabin, is either stupid or a traitor," one 11th grader for whom Ehud Barak was his distant uncle, quipped. 


Another bizarre matter was the phenomenon of "flipping."   Often, Modern Orthodox, and in rare cases, Reform parents who sent their children to Israeli yeshivot for a year prior to college saw their kids return back to the States "as haredim full of censure at any perceived compromise."   One such male graduate from a household of prominent attorneys came back replete with black hat, beard, peyes, and tzitzis.  Other students delighted the rabbis with ba'alei teshuva, a return to faith.  The greater the religious intensity of these youngsters, the greater was their distaste for compromise with the detested Palestinians.


Looking in the Mirror


The Pakistani madrasahs leave much to be desired.  But we would be remiss if our concern is not raised over the growing sectarianism of America's Orthodox Jewish day schools that provide shock troops for the Israeli right-wing settler movement.  The likes of Alan Goodman, Baruch Goldstein, Yitzhak Ginsburg, and Harry Shapiro were all products of such schools. (7)   America's 400,000 Orthodox Jews wield a tremendous amount of power in Israel thanks in no small measure to the Likud Party's cultivation of this source of reliable shock troops for the goal of a Greater Israel.  However, the wellspring of this groups' fierce commitment to Israel is located in the classrooms and auditoriums of the Orthodox day school system. 


When Americans judge the Pakistani madrasahs, we stand before a mirror that reminds us that some of our sectarian religious schools eerily parallel those schools.


Michael Lopez-Calderon is a high school teacher and activist based in Miami, Florida. E-mail:

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1) One report in U.S. News and World Report stated: "Pakistan's madrasahs may be grooming as many as 4.5 million budding mujahideen."  Philip Smucker and Michael Satchell, "Hearts and Minds," U.S. News and World Report, October 15, 2001, p28.


2) Ibid., p28.  Smucker and Satchell report cases in which madrasah pupils were unaware that men had walked the surface of the moon.


3) Approximately forty percent of the staff consists of non-Jews, and a majority of them secretly sided with me on the issue of Palestinian statehood.


4) Frum is Hebrew for a rigorously observant male.


5) One such rabbi wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Journal in which he defended the late Rabbi Meir Kahane: "Kahanne delivered a message to the post-Holocaust generation to reject the image of the weak and vulnerable Jew:"Jewish people can and will protect their own, no matter where Jews might be" (Rabbi Donald Bixon, "Kahane Article Failed to Make Distinction," Jewish Journal, January 16, 2001, p18).  The rabbi's line about Jews defending themselves no matter where they live raises a troubling question: He is prepared to countenance vigilante violence in the United States?


6) For two excellent explorations of this tension, see Samuel G. Freedman, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000) and Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer, Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).


7) See Freedman, Jew vs. Jew, p171.  Alan Goodman opened fire on Muslims worshipping at the Dome of the Rock; Baruch Goldstein was the architect of the February 25, 1994 Hebron massacre; Yitzhak Ginsburg published a memorial to Goldstein; and Harry Shapiro planted a pipe bomb in a Jacksonville, Florida synagogue in February 1997 in protest of a visit by Shimon Peres.