09/12/2011 03:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Muslim Fundamentalism Worth Supporting

Meet Sakena Yacoobi.

She is a heroine of mine. She is also a heroine to hundreds of thousands of Afghan girls.

Sakena heads the Afghan Institute of Learning in Kabul, Afghanistan.

When I met Sakena, she was already a widely-acclaimed rock star for social change. As you might imagine for a woman educating girls in a tough place like Taliban-infested Afghanistan, she has awards galore.

The Afghan Institute of Learning provides education for 350,000 women and children in 7 provinces in Afghanistan. The Institute employs 480 staff, 80% of them women teachers.

Not only that, the Afghan Institute runs mobile health clinics which offer - and this is so amazing that it is almost impossible to type - family planning and free condoms. Mix in economic development for women, teacher education and jobs skills training and the Institute is building the Afghanistan of the future.

Born in northwestern Afghanistan, Sakena is a Muslim fundamentalist. Her fundamental message is about women's empowerment and progress: Education, education, education.


NY Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn in the book Half the Sky capture Sakena's passion for education:

"I believe in education. It is such a powerful tool to overcome poverty and rebuild the country. If we took the foreign aid that goes to guns and weapons and just took one quarter of that and put it into education, that would completely transform this country. On behalf of the women and children of Afghanistan, I beg you! If we are to overcome terrorism and violence, we need education. That is the only way we can win."

In the 21st Century, Sakena's call for education is almost embarrassing. Don't we know this? Hasn't the American foreign aid establishment been paying attention? Why do we still need Sakena's pointed reminder?

I'll tell you why. In the United States, public education is a receding national commitment. Every year, we spend less, get less, perform worse, argue needlessly over curriculum, excuse over-crowded classrooms, defer school building maintenance, use older textbooks, layoff taxpayer-paid school teachers and turn off on yet another generation of students.

No surprise, then, that Sakena's voice is often unheard. Easier, it seems, to send drones with deadly bombs than teachers with life-enriching books.

Sakena ought to be made U.S. Secretary of Education. Her very presence in the job would remind every American that, as she says, "If we are to overcome terrorism and violence, we need education." That is what Sakena teaches every day of her life.

I don't get to spend nearly enough time with Sakena. Because we serve together on the Global Center for Social Entrepreneurship board, occasionally we sit across from each other in a conference room. And, once year on World Poverty Day we are both Delegates to the Opportunity Collaboration.

I can't wait to learn from her next month when the Opportunity Collaboration convenes!