Educational reform

Syed Zeeshan Haider

The solution to religious extremism in Pakistan

“If we keep fighting like this, it will be very hard,” says petrified Sher Murad in a feeble voice, who is one of the thousands of Pakistan army soldiers injured in the war against Taliban. He recuperates in bed donned with white sheets while his body is covered in a red blanket from neck down, at a Combined Military Hospital (CMH).  His left eye is all patched up due to a disabling injury sustained in combat. He utters the aforementioned comment in response to Sharemeen Obaid Chinoy’s question for her documentary film Pakistan’s Taliban Generation; regarding whether or not Pakistan can easily win the war against Taliban. Sher Murad’s straight forward reply pretty much sums up the uphill struggle faced by Pakistan in the fight against extremism; combating  an ideology with brute force. Fatalities in Terrorist Violence in Pakistan, from 2003 to 2016, include 21487 civilians, 6663 security force personnel, and 33342 insurgents/terrorists (Institute of Conflict Managment). The recent 8th August 2016  Quetta  massacre and  24th October Quetta police training college attack –  suggestively  in the province with lowest literacy rate( 28%) in Pakistan –  are clear proofs that  the strategy to counter extremism by violence is failing. We, in essence, need critical thinkers who can challenge extremists’ narratives. Today, what makes an average Pakistani vulnerable to be indoctrinated by extremists? The answer is simple: lack of the right sort of education.

Therefore, the most effective means to address religious extremism in Pakistan is through educational reforms in three key dimensions:

  1. Firstly: change of curriculum in all educational institutes,
  2. Second: taking stepwise corrective measures regarding Madrassas – starting with their regulation and eventually merging them into mainstream government educational institutes (GEIs),
  3. And third: the revision of the government’s spending priorities and resources/budget allocation for the education sector.

Osama bin Laden was a civil engineer, Aiman Al Zawahiri (current head of Al-Qaeda) is a Medical Surgeon Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (leader od Daesh) is  PhD in Quranic studies and Dr. Aafia Siddiqui  is a BS in biology from MIT.  In Pakistan, killers of 47 Ismailees and Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi are a few examples of “well educated students from elite schools” participating in extremist activities.

The list of seemingly educated persons indulging in religious extremism is a long one. One thing that is common amongst these religious extremists is that none of them had a degree in liberal arts/social sciences. The biggest misconception of people formulating policies to counter extremis is that they consider just “any sort” of education as a bulwark against extremist indoctrination. Clearly this is not the case. Pakistani doctors or engineers do gain a university degree but fail to develop critical thinking that can only be acquired with exposure to liberal arts. Pakistani (especially The government run) institutions have become places where students are turned into machines that are programmed to treat patients, build bridges and start a business. But the skill of critical thinking is not taught to them, nor are they encouraged to broach the discussion on controversial topics such as the blasphemy laws and the authenticity of the history taught to them.

The government needs to regulate all curriculums being taught in both public and private sector educational institutes. The old curriculum should be purged of all extremist content while the new one should be designed in a way that courses related to liberal arts (e.g. comparative religion), and the social sciences such as sociology and psychology (formulated and engineered to suit every step of the educational ladder), are made a mandatory part and parcel of all programs being offered at school, college and university level. For example, social science such as sociology familiarises a person to different societies: their evolution, norms and beliefs etc. This acquaints them with the process of forming an   “informed” opinion about people who are “different” from us. Juxtaposition of our culture, values and beliefs with those of others help us introspectively analyse and “doubt “our deep rooted convictions. Often, the self-doubt is all what stands between peace and extremism.

Secondly, there is the case of madrassa education in Pakistan that needs to be addressed.  Madrassas have produced some prominent extremists. Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) studied at a madrassa in Hangu District.  Darul Uloom Haqqania, Akoora Khatak, is known to harbor students including Mullah Omar and other prominent Taliban. Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, one of the main leaders of Pakistan-Afghanistan chapter of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), was a student of Al-Jamiatul Asaria madrasa in Peshawar. The list is a very long one. Mostly the biggest donors fund madrassas for one of the two or both reasons; to propagate their sect and/or, in case of foreign countries, recruit soldiers for their proxy war. Why are Madrasas needed after all? Do they provide unique and non-replicable education which cannot be imparted in the government run institutions? The answer is obviously no. As a first step, the subjects being taught in madrasas should be introduced in the government school, colleges and universities. New departments (to accommodate all the subjects being taught in madrassas) need to be set up in the government institutes. Next, all Madrassa students need to be enrolled in the government institutions free of cost, and irrespective of their academic performance ( marks or grades) as after 18th amendment and the insertion of Article 25-A; the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the right to free and compulsory education to all children of age 5 to 16 years in Pakistan. Lastly, madrassas need to be merged into mainstream government educational institutions.  This will empower madrassa students to choose what they want to study; interaction between students from different disciplines will make them more tolerant and lead to formation of a pluralistic society. However, for this to happen, we need more resources to be poured into education sector in Pakistan. The government needs to radically revise its spending priorities, and resources/budget allocated for the education sector.

In the Budget 2016-17, PRs. 84 billion have been assigned for education  and PRs. 860 billion have been allocated for defense spending. Seemingly, the government’s current policy to counter extremism is to increase defense budget without realising that violence begets more extremism. Resultantly, to deal increased extremism, more defense spending is required. This is, in fact, a never ending vicious cycle. Majority of the students who join Madrassas do it because of the two main reasons:  firstly, they can’t afford the fees (in addition, Madrasas provide free food and lodging) and secondly they fail to achieve the merit of the government institutes (private institutes being far more expensive are obviously unaffordable). Government needs to adopt more inclusive educational policies by providing admission, to every student who wants to study, free of cost and regardless of her academic performance (with free food and free accommodation for the deserving student).  Pakistan’s policy makers need to allocate a major chunk of the overall budget for educational reforms if they want to permanently uproot the menace of extremism from Pakistan. Extremism in Pakistan stems from lack of (correctly designed) education and faltering economy (leading to increased poverty). Increased education spending will create a generation insusceptible to extremist indoctrination and equipped with skills to positively contribute to the economy of Pakistan (enabling upward mobilisation, decrease in poverty and triggering economic growth).

Then, there are those who consider religious extremism as cancer and assert that we need to come down hard on extremists with the use of violent means (such as action by security forces). These proponents of violent measures argue that a large number of religious extremist are incorrigible; only right way to “deal” with them is to clamp down on them with maximum force. They point at the perpetrators of Army Public School Peshawar massacre along with plethora of other incidents of barbarism. The advocates of brute state force are right to an extent that certain hard core religious extremist forces need to be dealt with Repressive State Apparatuses, but this is a short term solution. It is more important to remove the causes of the disease than to cure the disease itself. In order to permanently cleanse the Pakistani society of religious extremism, educational reforms at the structural level are indispensable.

Lastly, it is quite clear that violence is not the “most” effective way to address religious extremism in Pakistan. According to Jonathan Sacks, “Wars are won by weapons, but it takes ideas to win a peace.”  Changes in The government’s educational policy are the need of the hour in order to address the religious extremism menace. These changes must include: firstly, The government’s revision of educational curriculums (in a way that all programs offered at every level in every institute whatsoever should include mandatory liberal arts/social science courses that promote critical thought). Secondly, the madrasas, being the nurseries for breeding extremism, need to close down in phases and eventually merged with mainstream Government educational institutes. Thirdly, the Government needs to get its priorities in the right order by exponentially increasing its budget allocated for education. However, as civilians, we need to participate in the process equally vigorously because the change will not come on its own; “the ruling junta” won’t change its old ways unless we as civilians participate in nonviolent direct action; similar to the one carried out by Martin Luther King during the American civil rights movement.

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