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SANA’A, YEMEN – We’re at Khalid School, which with 8,000 students is one of Yemen’s larger public schools. This morning, about half are lined up outside.

It’s exercise time. Hands up. Down. In front.

Straighten up or get a swat from a teacher brandishing a stick. From a rooftop, I watch.

After the drill, the younger kids, in green uniforms, go inside. The older ones, in tan, sit on the courtyard. The sun beats onto this, their classroom. A teacher tells me there are 75 teachers. “Most are the other kind.” He means women. Khalid, though huge, is among Yemen’s better schools. Teachers call some others “slums.”

Until the 1960s, when Yemen’s Imam, the clerical ruler, was thrown from power, most students attended madrassas and Koranic schools. Studying the Koran was seen as the best education. Now about 950 of the Islamic schools face reform — or closure. Yemen’s cabinet says this will help “modernize Islam” and remove the schools from “extremism, militancy and certain curricula promoting deviant ideologies.”

Globally, there are about six million madrassas, plus 12 million of the more-elementary Koranic schools. Dating back centuries, many are now in the world’s poorest countries, funded by groups, sometimes militant, from places like Saudi Arabia. Impoverished kids often attend without choice. It’s a cheap, often free, social service.

Will converting them into secular schools make the world safer, as proponents suggest? That’s debatable. And it may be simplistic. Most madrassas are backward, but not militant. And while it’s great to teach math to kids who might otherwise only hear that any un-bearded man is going to hell, the bigger challenge, in my observation, is to reform some broader thinking.

For example, rote learning is common here. It comes from religious teaching emphasizing memorization of the Koran. Memorization, not necessarily understanding. The result? As an Aussie teacher told me, students can’t put information into different forms. “So a girl in Pakistan told me she memorized the order of the planets, but didn’t know which one was beside Earth.”

Things then get built on shaky ideas like “Al- Wala’a, la al-Kafa’a,” (“Loyalty not qualifications.”) Ask Jean, my wife and a doctor. Helping officiate medical exams here, she notes, to her dismay, how Iraqi and Palestinian students get marks for their nationality, not skills. One recently passed without initially knowing he had a basic birth-control device in his hands.

Yes, even educated people believe things like eating pork, which is unclean in Islam, removes one’s “jealousy capacity.” This is why western couples, who presumably eat bacon and ham without shame, cheat on each other. And recently a top government official said Israel is poisoning Yemen’s populace through exported pesticides.

You get the idea. Critical thinking isn’t encouraged. New, secular curriculum, in itself, won’t teach that.

What’s needed is what one writer to a Pakistani newspaper said after 9/11: “a [broader] reformation in the practice of Islam that moves it forward, not backward. Or there is no hope for Muslims anywhere. Oxford and Cambridge were the “madrassas” of Christendom of the 13th century. Look where they are today, among the leading institutions of education in the world. Where are our institutions of learning?”

It’s sad, considering that 1,000 years ago, when the first madrassa was created in Baghdad to train leaders of the Islamic empire, Islam led the world in science, math and literature. That was when “ijtihad,” the concept of independent reasoning, flourished. Muslims looked at the world with clarity.

What would it take to return to that? Besides some deep soul-searching, I’m not sure. But I do know many young people here are on the street, uneducated, jobless, hopeless, angry, and susceptible to extremists who play on their fears. Unlike in North America and Europe, the number of Arab youth is exploding.

And it seems to me that if we are in a so-called war of civilizations, the biggest battlefields may not be in places like Iraq as much as in the classroom. It would help if more thoughtful Muslims from places like the west, having all kinds of advantages given to them, came to help.