As a Pakistani-American and a Muslim, Azhar Hussain has been personally affected by global extremism as well as sectarian violence in Pakistan. Today, he is leading a critical effort to equip the next generation with the knowledge and skills necessary for peace and reconciliation.
Azhar grew up in Pakistan, where he witnessed firsthand the influential role of the madrasa education system on Pakistani students and society. Madrasas, or religious schools, often provide room and board for children who cannot otherwise afford it, and groom them to serve as the future religious leaders of the country.
Today, as Vice President for Preventive Diplomacy at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD), Azhar (known as Azi to his friends) heads the Madrasa Enhancement Program in Pakistan. In keeping with ICRD’s mission to address identity-based conflicts that exceed the reach of traditional diplomacy, Azi works tirelessly to engage the Pakistani madrasa leaders and help them develop skills to be agents of peacebuilding, reduce violence, and provide improved opportunities for Pakistani youth.
In contrast to attempts by other parties to impose reforms on madrasas which are met with suspicion and hostility, Azi has found success by engaging madrasa leaders directly. Rather than criticizing the shortcomings of madrasa education and attempting to impose foreign values, Azi encourages madrasa leaders to reflect on their own values and goals. They explore ways they can work together to live up to the principles of Islam and provide improved moral guidance for their students and communities.
The ICRD Madrasa Enhancement Program also encourages expansion of the madrasas’ curricula to include the social and scientific disciplines, with a special emphasis on religious tolerance and human rights. It inspires changes in pedagogy that support the development of critical thinking skills and motivates madrasa leaders to use religious principles in resolving conflict peacefully.
On behalf of ICRD, Azi has worked in partnership with local Pakistani religious and civic organizations to design a system of comprehensive training programs for madrasa leaders that equips them with the skills necessary to facilitate these changes, and then to train other madrasa leaders to do the same. Since 2004, Azi has conducted numerous training workshops, bringing together madrasa leaders from each of Pakistan’s five Muslim sects, often for the first time in their lives. Through his commitment to the Islamic principles of peace, tolerance, and reconciliation, Azi is laying the groundwork for sectarian harmony within Pakistan and for the reduction of global extremism.
Azi’s work exhibits a deeply held belief in the power of religion to heal, to motivate and to empower people to bring about powerful social change within their societies and the world at large. What drives his efforts to reform the madrasas is his conviction that religion can be a force for peace and unity rather than division and violence. The dangers involved in working for peace and reconciliation are many, and Azi’s unique capability to affect change carries with it severe risks. While some call for military action to confront the threat of violent extremism, Azi’s work is meeting an even greater challenge by engaging the highest values of religion in promoting peace.
Madrasa Enhancement and Global Security:
A Model for Faith-based Engagement
ICRD Monograph, 2009
Madrasas and the ‘Global War on Terror’
Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum, 2006