Actually, Obama Did Go to a ‘Madrasah’

CNN’s “Situation Room” tonight sought to dispel the rumor that has started that Barack Obama attended a “madrasah” in Indonesia as a boy. The show reported that Obama has written in his autobiography that he attended a Muslim school for two years. But that’s not a madrasah!

I beg to differ. Two weeks ago I attended a lecture on development in the Arab world at the 92d Street Y. The lecturer was Saifedean Ammous, a Palestinian graduate student in international studies at Columbia. A woman in the audience asked Ammous about all those terrible madrasah’s that Arabs send their children to. Ammous answered that “madrasah” simply means school in Arabic, and he attended a Quaker madrasah in Ramallah.

I asked him about the point today; and Ammous emailed me:

The term Madrasah simply means school, and is used exactly as in English, so you could use it to refer to a Jewish, Christian or Islamic Madrasah, as well as a public, private, elementary or secondary Madrasah. In the English language, and due to the amount of coverage that some of these schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been getting over the last few years, the term Madrasah has been associated with religious schools that supposedly indoctrinate and train terrorists.

Obama clearly went to a Madrasah in Indonesia, in that he clearly went to a school… Even if he did go to a religious school, that almost certainly doesn’t mean that it was a place where they learned Koran and not Chemistry. In all likelihood it was an Islamic school inasmuch as Catholic schools in America are Catholic: a regular school teaching all the regular subjects, but putting a little extra emphasis on religion and the morality of its students.

I highly doubt that he had gone to what are known as “radical madrasas”, I don’t even know if they are common in Indonesia, and can imagine that his family, who seem largely secular, would’ve wanted to make sure their kid studies math and science.