But research into the sources of Islamic militancy indicate that trying to suppress the schools may be a fool's errand -- and won't address the roots of terrorism. What's more, the public educational system may be more likely to produce suicide bombers. "All of this whooping and hollering about the madrassas is misplaced criticism," says Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the U.S. Institute for Peace who has studied the origins of terrorists.
NOT NECESSARILY MILITANT. To understand why, you need to know some history about these schools. Madrassas range from elementary schools to the equivalent of Koranic Sunday schools to seminaries that train religious leaders. Parents prefer madrassas because they're better funded, and some give stipends to offset the loss of child labor.
Politics played a major role in financing these schools. And nowhere has the growth of madrassas been more of an issue than in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and Gulf States with majority Sunni populations wanted Pakistan to serve as a buffer against the Shiites who had come to power in Iran in the late 1970s. So they bankrolled madrassas in Pakistan. The Saudis in particular exported Wahhabism, a particularly rigid expression of the Islam faith that relies on strict interpretation of the Koran. But while religion plays an important role in the schools, jihadism by and large doesn't.
"They may train people who are more bent on a religious view of things, but that doesn't necessarily mean a militant curriculum," says Vali Nasr, a professor of Middle East and South Asia politics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif. (It's believed that few of the Wahabbi madrassas teach violence. However, they're extremely conservative.)
JIHADISM'S OTHER FACTORS. In fact, madrassas don't give students the kind of education needed to be terrorists, argues Fair. Most of these schools focus on reciting the Koran and learning the duties of the maulvi, the people who run mosques' day-to-day operations. To be a terrorist, you need to know where to get bomb components, how to read labels -- a set of skills madrassas don't teach. "If you think about this as a labor market, it makes no sense [that these schools are supplying al Qaeda recruits]," Fair says.
Fair and Nasr agree that only a tiny percentage of madrassas taught students about both the Koran and Kalashnikovs -- and that was mostly to fight the Soviets when they had invaded Afghanistan. That's still true. So to say all madrassas foment terror is like saying all Catholic priests violate vows of celibacy because a few do.
When the Pakistan economy was so dismal that madrassa graduates joined terrorist groups because no jobs were available, it was easy -- but wrong -- to conclude that the madrassas were responsible for nurturing terrorists. A country's military, foreign powers, war lords, and the local economy all play major roles in the growth of jihadism -- certainly more significant roles than the religious-based schools.
ILL-PREPARED STUDENTS. To be sure, the madrassas that prepare imams have produced their share of hot-headed preachers who can get a crowd going. But for an average guy who attends these schools, "the impact on recruitment for terrorism is much more difficult to prove," says Nasr. Fair says the typical recruitment process involves friends, networks, and door-to-door preachers who recruit through lectures on alleged Hindu or Christian perfidy.
Stamping out madrassas may prove nearly impossible, simply because state-run schools are not yet an alternative for the middle and upper classes. Ironically, it's state-run schools that are more likely to give students the skills they need to be terrorists, though how much anti-Western sentiment is taught varies from country to country.
That's not to say that the madrassas don't merit criticism. Their curriculum doesn't prepare students for the modern economy. And they produce religious conservatives who are likely to vote that way if democracy comes to their countries. Only now are these schools starting to buy computers and teach such subjects as English, chemistry, and physics. While those are the skills terrorists need, it will be less of a problem if the economies in these countries improve so that they offer a source of income other than joining al Qaeda.
The schools still have a long way to go. Nasr says Pakistan has only 80 math teachers for 8,000 madrassas. So yes, there are problems with madrassas. But contrary to conventional wisdom, fueling terrorism may not be the most troublesome one. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online