Beyond Madrasas: Assessing the Links Between Education and Militancy in Pakistan

Corinne Graff and
Corinne Graff Former Brookings Expert, Senior Policy Scholar - United States Institute of Peace
Rebecca Winthrop

June 23, 2010


Increasing educational attainment is likely to reduce conflict risk, especially in countries like Pakistan that have very low levels of primary and secondary school enrollment. Education quality, relevance and content also have a role to play in mitigating violence. Education reform must therefore be a higher priority for all stakeholders interested in a more peaceful and stable Pakistan. Debate within the country about education reform should not be left only to education policymakers and experts, but ought to figure front and center in national dialogues about how to foster security. The price of ignoring Pakistan’s education challenges is simply too great in a country where half the population is under the age of 17.

There has been much debate concerning the roots of militancy in Pakistan, and multiple factors clearly come into play. One risk factor that has attracted much attention both inside Pakistan and abroad is the dismal state of the national education sector. Despite recent progress, current school attainment and literacy levels remain strikingly low, as does education spending. The Pakistani education sector, like much of the country’s public infrastructure, has been in decline over recent decades. The question of how limited access to quality education may contribute to militancy in Pakistan is more salient now than ever, given the rising national and international security implications of continued violence.

The second half of 2009 witnessed not only the Pakistani government stepping up action against insurgents but also the release of a new Pakistan National Education Policy that aspires to far-reaching and important reforms, including a commitment to increase investment in education—from 2 to 7 percent of gross domestic product. Hundreds of millions of dollars in international education aid have been newly pledged by donor countries. This renewed emphasis on education represents a substantial opportunity to seek to improve security in Pakistan and potentially also globally over the medium to long term. Policymakers both inside and outside Pakistan should give careful consideration to whether and how education investments can promote peace and stability, taking into account what we now know about the state of the education sector and the roots of militancy.

This report takes a fresh look at the connection between schools, including but not limited to Pakistan’s religious seminaries, known as “madrasas,” and the rising militancy across the country. Poor school performance across Pakistan would seem an obvious area of inquiry as a risk factor for conflict. Yet to date, the focus has been almost exclusively on madrasas and their role in the mounting violence. Outside Pakistan, relatively little attention has been given to whether and how the education sector as a whole may be fueling violence, over and above the role of the minority of militant madrasas.