President Barack Obama is rolling up his sleeves for his second term. No doubt much of the U.S. attention will be on the 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as dealing with Iran's nuclear aspirations. However, something big is still missing from the administration's radar, and for that matter, from the vision of many states and state leaders. That missing piece is crucial ammunition in the fight against Islamic extremism. The overlooked, yet simple part of the equation is combating illiteracy and deficiencies in education. Too often religious extremists and their institutions are filling in the gaps. This is a recipe for disaster.
According to renowned Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, the literacy rate in Pakistan is about 57 percent, "the lowest in South Asia, and not much better than the 52 percent that prevailed at the creation of Pakistan in 1947," he says in his book, "Pakistan on the Brink." In 65 years, Pakistan's literacy rate has increased by a mere 5 percent.
The gender breakdown for literacy rates is even worse for both Pakistan and Afghanistan: in the former, the male literacy rate is 68 percent, and for females it's about 40 percent. In the latter, male literacy is 43 percent, and for females it's an unforgivable 12.6 percent.
Another crisis is in Egypt, where the rapidly growing population accounts for rising illiteracy rates. Current statistics show male literacy rates at 80 percent, and female literacy at only 63 percent, wherein illiteracy rates are highest among 15- to 35-year-olds. The new post-revolution president of Egypt, Mohammad Mursi, has yet to address this problem, or list it as one of his administration's priorities, although civil society institutions have been active in trying to turn the tide on these figures. But it remains an uphill battle.
Analysts also point to the illiteracy problem in Egypt as one of the primary causes of unemployment. If President Mursi wants to facilitate socioeconomic development in Egypt, then he will have to make literacy and education his top priorities.
A serious coinciding problem exists in these regions and cultures. The religious establishment indoctrinates followers in blind faith, and in the current ultra-conservative climate questioning authority is never tolerated. This is why the young education activist in Swat, Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head on Taliban orders. They recognize that education and intellectual discourse lead to questioning their authority and legitimacy. It rubs them even worse that girls should be so bold and audacious.
If we add the culture of no questioning and no intellectual discourse to the already severe illiteracy crises in these regions, we see that no amount of military or political maneuvering in their domestic problems will successfully resolve the complex problems afflicting them. Military solutions are temporary, and political negotiations only deal with issues on the surface. The heart of the problem lies in deficiencies in literacy and education, not just in quantity but also in the quality and nature of education. Anything else is just dealing with the symptoms.
Consider that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt receive hundreds of millions of dollars, and billions over the years, in U.S. military aid. Pakistan and Egypt allot about 3 percent of their GDP, and Afghanistan, 1.9 percent, to military expenditures. Military and defense take the largest slices of the pie. Egypt is the second- largest recipient of U.S. military aid with about $1.4 billion annually, and Israel is No. 1, with about $3 billion annually.
Throwing money at these countries will not fix the domestic crises they face, nor will the U.S. military toolbox of the DIME: Diplomacy, Information, Military and Economics, which is often cited for implementation of U.S. strategies and policies in conflict areas. I argue that if we fail to add a second "E" to the DIME, we will continue to lock ourselves in a cycle of failure in combating extremism. That second "E" is "education."
I propose DIME+E, an essential element in the toolbox, and I contend that it is the most potent ammunition against extremist ideologies.
The problem is that countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt will not improve their literacy and education deficiencies effectively without good governance and domestic policies. Also, they now have Islamic fundamentalist constituents who continue pressuring respective central governments to comply with their demands, or at least keep the liberals and secularists at bay in terms of social policy.
Many of these religious constituents do not hesitate to employ violent tactics to make their points, and to force compliance. This is even the case in post-2011 revolution Egypt, with rogue hard-line Salafi gangs openly bullying and even killing people. One such group threatened to cut off the tongue of a shopkeeper's son for a perceived insult. Another group in the Suez killed a young man who was seen in public with his fiancée. An Islamist teacher cut a girl's hair for not properly covering with a headscarf.
Strict "blasphemy" laws and religious restrictions and censorship of the media and the arts will follow for sure, as Salafists have even attacked art exhibits in Tunisia and an interfaith festival playing music in Egypt.
Notice what Ahmed Rashid says about Pakistan's eroding education system, which affects the army: "Higher education has suffered enormously. The best teaching staff has left the country, so universities are unable to educate their students adequately. This is especially true in the army. The Pakistan Army's prime institution, the National Defense University (NDU) in Islamabad, has seen a sad loss of intellectual rigor." He also argues that these trends are repressing alternative views, including those about the U.S.A. Hence, biased anti-American views are pervading in Pakistani institutions.
Unless people feel confident enough to question religious and other authorities, especially the rogue militant elements now roaming throughout North Africa, the Middle East and the Af-Pak region, the fight against extremist ideologies will not gain ground. Furthermore, people will not feel confident unless they are armed with literacy, quality education and courage to engage in intellectual discourse. People need to be empowered with the big "E" of education, and that includes people serving in militaries.
It may sound simple, but these are the ABCs of combating religious extremism and ignorance. The need for DIME+E cannot be emphasized enough. Without the second "E," we are destined only to run in circles with past, present and future conflicts involving religious extremists, the enemies of knowledge.