The U.S. may have no more difficult relationship than the one it has with Pakistan. This supposed ally plays a double game in Afghanistan, mixes an unstable political system and weak civilian government with nuclear weapons, and acts as an incubator for religious intolerance. Obviously, Islamabad has its own, sometimes well‐founded complaints against America. But there may be no more dangerous nation today than Pakistan.
An important cause of conflict in that divided society is the educational system. All too often, both public schools and private madrassas promote intolerance and extremism. These attitudes have encouraged increasing violence which threatens to consume the entire country with deadly effect.
In November the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom published a report written by Ashar Hussain (International Center for Religion and Diplomacy), Ahmad Salim (Sustainable Development Policy Institute), and Arif Naveed (also SDPI).
Pakistan’s birth was bloody, featuring violent conflict between and mass movement of Hindus and Muslims within the areas which became India and Pakistan. Although Pakistan’s Islamic character was clear, founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared. “Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion or faith of any kind will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship.”
Pakistan would be a much better place if these sentiments continued to reflect that nation’s reality. However, much has changed over the last six decades. For instance, General Muhammad Zia‐ul‐Haq promoted Muslim fundamentalism to win public support for his military rule. Rising Islamic currents around the world created greater receptivity to extremism. Most recently, American military operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan generated widespread antagonism.
These factors alone would have created a tough environment in which to protect the human life and dignity of religious, ethnic, and political minorities. However, the education system for a growing youth population has created an equally serious barrier. As the Commission observed. “education plays a critical role in the fabric of Pakistani life, with the potential of bringing the society together or tearing it apart.” Today, unfortunately, education, so‐called, is far too often doing the latter.
For years schooling in Pakistan was largely secular, but the public system failed to educate most students. Gen. Zia increased the money going to education, but simultaneously “infused the education system with rigid Islamic content,” explained the USCIRF. Before dying in a suspicious plane crash in 1988, the dictatorial Zia changed curriculum and textbooks for the worse.
His government stated that “The highest priority would be given to the revision of the curricula with a view to reorganizing the entire content around Islamic thought and giving education an ideological orientation so that Islamic ideology permeates the thinking of the young generation.” The problem was not that the system emphasized Islam, but instead promoted intolerant fundamentalism. Dr. Nasim Ashraf of the Middle East Institute said the Zia years were “the turning point for Pakistan’s educational system,” creating “the bedrock on which militant extremism was founded.”
The most obvious impact is that many religious minorities suffer through an education which directly attacks their faith. Noted the Commission, minority students “are forced to study from textbooks and curricula that are biased against them and routinely face discrimination and intimidation from Muslim students and teachers.” So much for Article 22 of the 1973 Pakistani constitution, which states that “No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or take part in any religious ceremony, or attend religious worship, if such instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.”
Even worse, though, warned the Commission, the educational system “presents a challenge to the full implementation of protections for religious minorities, and in some cases has even been linked to physical violence against them.” And not just against non‐Muslims. In effect, the Pakistani government now is training those who are determined to kill even Muslims to get their way. Last year Islamic extremists murdered a liberal Muslim governor as well as a Christian government minister. The killers came from the generation which studied under the Zia educational “reforms.”
Inflammatory textbooks are an important problem. Noted the Commission, “The portrayal of religious minorities in textbooks is generally either derogatory or omitted entirely.” Indeed, non‐Muslims “are often portrayed as inferior or second‐class citizens who have been granted limited rights and privileges by generous Pakistani Muslims, for which they should be grateful.” The harshest attacks are on Hindus, though Christians, Jews, and Sikhs do not receive a fair description.
In 2006 Islamabad revised its curricula guidelines for the better. However, nearly six years later, reported the USCIRF, “textbooks incorporating these revisions in line with the 2006 guidelines have not been created.” Unfortunately, the authorities have backtracked some over that time. Moreover, in the intervening years English language textbooks were changed for the worse, actually eliminating accurate descriptions of religious minorities.
More worrisome is the situation in private madrassas. They operate with minimal government oversight and choose their own educational materials. In general, Pakistani researchers (who conducted the Commission study) found that the most recent books, used for astronomy, grammar, and mathematics, date from the 14th century. Other texts are even older.
It should surprise no one that such materials present non‐Muslims in a less than positive light. Noted the USCIRF. “Non‐Muslims are generally portrayed in the madrassa textbooks reviewed in one of three ways. (1) kafirs (infidels) or mushrakeen (pagans), (2) dhimmis (non‐Muslims living under Islamic rule), or (3) murtids (apostates, i.e., people who have turned away from Islam). Non‐Muslims are never described as citizens with the constitutionally‐protected rights which accompany citizenship.”
Over the last decade Islamabad has initiated some limited madrassa reform efforts, including spending more money, creating an oversight board, and prohibiting extremist indoctrination. However, in practice the government has spent most of its time attempting to convince madrassas to teach more modern and secular subjects and has not enforced its ban on hate‐mongering, whether intentional or incidental. In this case Islamabad is allowing others to actively undermine the foundational principles of the nation.
In both public schools and private madrassas the problems caused by dubious curriculums and textbooks are compounded by profoundly disturbing teacher attitudes. In general public school teachers knew little about religious minorities and “expressed a strong sense of self‐righteousness regarding sectarian issues.”
Large numbers believed that sectarian differences were wide and that religious minorities were not citizens. The vast majority believed that violent jihad was mandatory for Muslims. Many teachers were critical of the behavior of religious minorities and proselytized in class. Overall, reported the Commission, “As many as 80% of the respondents considered non‐Muslims to be enemies of Islam.”
No surprise, madrassa teachers were even more negative towards religious minorities. After all, observed the religious panel, “As opposed to public school teachers, madrassa teachers teach (and often live) in an environment without religious diversity.”
The result. “Madrassa teachers expressed hostility for the followers of most religions.” They believed the sectarian divide was large and in jihad which was “sometimes to be directed violently against religious minorities.” While accepting religious minorities as citizens, madrassa teachers believed they should not have political power. The instructors were prone to believe in conspiracies.
Overall, the Commission found that many teachers were personally intolerant and publicly insensitive toward students of minority faiths. Teachers often reinforced discriminatory stereotypes while offering little encouragement to non‐Muslim children, sending “covert and overt messages to non‐Muslim students to convert to Islam.”
Thus, the problem of extremism in Pakistan has become self‐perpetuating. The educational system teaches intolerance to those who will become instructors, who in turn will shape the next generation, transmitting the same intolerance. Even if the central government changes the curriculum and textbooks, the teachers will perpetuate today’s abuses.
As one would expect, given both texts and instructors, public school students were unfriendly to religious minorities. The children tended to see Pakistan as Islamic, often by sect. Although nominally respectful of religious minorities, reported the Commission, “when probed on other issues, the respect in many instances seemed vacant. Students often expressed negative views of followers of other religions.” Kids generally perceived jihad in narrow, violent terms, and many did not consider religious minorities to be citizens. Perhaps more ominously, “the majority of students simply identified non‐Muslims as the enemies of Islam.”
Madrassa students had less contact with non‐Muslims but, paradoxically, were more likely to view the latter as citizens with basic rights. However, the principal reason these students wanted to promote good relations was to advance proselytism. And at the same time “a majority of them considered non‐Muslims as enemies of Islam, with some considering members of other Muslims sects to be enemies.”
Hostility toward Jews, Hindus, Ahmadis, and Shias was particularly noteworthy. The USCIRF added. “madrassa students indicated that Jews and Hindus, and to some extent Christians, were considered as the biggest enemies of Islam.” America, India, and Israel also were singled out as “as enemies of Islam.”
The direct victims of intolerance in the Pakistani educational system are non‐Muslim students. The Commission detailed several cases. For instance, a Christian fourth‐grader was singled out for the dirtiest janitorial duties and corporal punishment, and his father was threatened with loss of his job for filing a complaint. All the Christian girls at one school were failed; a protest forced the administration to regrade the annual exam. A 13‐year‐old girl wrote of pressure to convert and social isolation, when “teachers and my fellow students refused to eat and drink with me.” Another was insulted and beaten by his teacher and called a “dirty Christian.”
Of greater concern to Americans is the collective impact on the Pakistani people. Reported the Commission, a number of educational experts shared “a sense that discrimination is pervasive throughout Pakistani society, influencing and being influenced by the formal educational system.” They pointed to misrepresentation of the tenets of other faiths, treatment of non‐Muslims as outsiders, view of religious minorities as threats to Islam and Pakistan, and insistence that Islam is the norm for Pakistanis.
Shah Jahan Baloch of Save the Children warned. “Biases created in schools at the early age have an effect in the long run and we can see them.” Dr. Khalil Masood, former Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, said religious differences were “also about culture and caste.” Although religious minorities helped create Pakistan, “this political representation of non‐Muslims was systematically brought to an end.” Peter Jacob of the National Commission for Peace and Justice observed. “These biases create a big chain of discrimination in all walks of life.”
Although causation is never easy to prove, those who study Pakistan’s educational system linked “biases in the education and the incidences of extremism, hatred, and violence in the country.” For instance, Jahan concluded that “it has a huge effect on religious harmony because it promotes misperceptions about sectarian diversity.” Some of the scholars saw educational intolerance encouraging the violence that has become so common against religious minorities. Yet, complained Dr. Tariz Rahman of Qaid‐e‐Azam University, policymakers “haven’t taken initiatives to solve these problems.”
America’s educational system obviously is far from perfect, and many problems afflict Pakistani society. However, violence threatens not only religious minorities, who face sometimes deadly persecution, but increasingly any Pakistani who eschews extremism. If those in power do not want to be consumed by the fires of Islamic extremism, they must transform an educational system which is stoking the flames.
There is nothing the U.S. can do directly. And, given the state of bilateral relations, even Washington’s indirect influence is limited. However, American officials should raise the issue, since what happens in Pakistan matters well beyond its own borders. Should Islamabad’s fragile political superstructure collapse, the consequences would be enormous, and reverberate outward throughout the region and beyond.
Pakistan began with great promise. But it increasingly looks like a failed state with nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, many of that nation’s problems are self‐inflicted, starting with an educational system that helps normalize intolerance and violence.