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  • Islamic Education in Afghanistan Revisiting the United States’ Role
  • Roozbeh Shirazi (bio)

What was more important in the view of world history? The possible creation of an armed, radical Islamic movement, or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?

—Zbigniew Brzenzinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor1

Just as we succeeded in imbuing Japan and Germany with liberalism and democracy after we had defeated them decisively on the battlefield, so the defeat of terrorism, which in practice means the defeat of the various regimes that sponsor terror and of the Islamist movement, may open the way to new thinking in the Middle East. Although it is unlikely that we will occupy any countries as long or as thoroughly as we did at the end of World War II, our [End Page 211] goal ought to be the same: liberalizing and democratizing cultures that have previously proved resistant to it.

—Joshua Muravchik, American Enterprise Institute2


Since the seventh century, Islam has had a powerful social, political, and religious presence in Afghanistan. With 99 percent of the Afghan population identifying themselves as Muslim (including Hanafi, Jafari, and Ismaeli sects as well as different Sufi orders), Islam has served as a strong basis for Afghan cultural identity and serves as a powerful reference point for Afghan social mores, rights, and obligations regardless of ethnicity (Sahraie and Sahraie 1974; Karlsson and Mansoury 2004). Until the twentieth century, “all education in Afghanistan was traditional Islamic education, firmly rooted in the Qur’an and mostly limited to the study of religious science, law, and the hadith” (Sahraie and Sahraie 1974, 2). However, the meanings and practices of schooling in Afghanistan began a process of transformation in the nineteenth century as a result of imperial contests between Britain and Russia in Central Asia (Shirazi 2007). Collectively, these duels became known as the Great Game and engendered a fierce debate between religious and secular Afghan elites on the role education should play in Afghanistan to cope with the threat of encroaching European powers. Despite the contest between secular and religious forces over control of the development of a modern mass schooling system, various forms and degrees of Islamic education3 have remained a fixture of education in Afghanistan during its tumultuous modern history of political conflict. Moreover, the development of Afghanistan’s educational institutions have long attracted and been given shape by outside actors.

From the time Afghanistan was first recognized as a sovereign nation and extended development assistance by the Soviet Union, the welfare and orientation of the Afghan state has been viewed as a strategic interest of the United States. Since the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States has played an active role in shaping and developing Afghanistan’s physical and social infrastructure as a countereffect of any influence or power gained by the Soviets engaging in the same practices. While U.S. involvement in [End Page 212] Afghan education development and Afghanistan’s role in U.S. foreign policy interests have been examined by scholars, few, if any, accounts examine the convergence of these topics, linking U.S. support for education development in Afghanistan to U.S. foreign policy interests. Exploring such a relationship is useful because an examination of U.S. support for education in Afghanistan reveals a long-standing American appreciation of Islam’s importance in Afghanistan and how U.S. understanding of Islam has changed over time.

Drawing upon content analysis of historical policy texts and secondary sources, as well as the author’s interviews with education policy makers in the United States and Afghanistan, this essay advances two main arguments: First, support for Islamic education (as part of broader U.S. development assistance to Afghanistan) has historically been a U.S. foreign policy tool in Afghanistan. Second, U.S. foreign policy shifts over time have led to diverse American conceptualizations of the social role of Islam in Afghanistan and varying types of support for Islamic education. This study identifies three distinct periods of U.S. support for Islamic education in Afghanistan. Beginning chronologically, these initiatives have cast Islam...


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pp. 211-233
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