OVER A COFFEE : Need for de-radicalisation of Pakistan — III — Dr Haider Shah
The key measure of a de-radicalisation plan should be a complete overhaul of the syllabus of the educational institutions of Pakistan
On New Year’s Eve, Britain comes alive with celebrations, fireworks and parties in every corner of the country. The freezing air fails to deter millions of people from exchanging warm feelings of hope, happiness, love and good wishes amid New Year resolutions. Similar scenes are witnessed in many other countries as well. Ask any police officer what accompanies the arrival of the Islamic New Year in Pakistan. Perhaps just casting a cursory look at the headlines of news during the last one week can be revealing. The news reports tell us that heavy contingents of police, rangers, and other law-enforcement agencies have been deployed to prevent followers of various religious denominations from slitting each other’s throats. Motorbike riding and mobile phones have been banned amid the declaration of a red alert as if, like the US government, the Pakistani government was also preparing for an impending tsunami.
What you sow is what you reap. An effective de-radicalisation plan must therefore examine carefully what we have been teaching our students in schools, colleges and universities. We often hear that extremism is caused by lack of education and if more is spent on education, we shall see eradication of extremism in Pakistan. There is no doubt we need to spend much more on education, but what we need is not just education but, more importantly, the right kind of education. I have hardly seen an illiterate villager joining the extremist movement but have seen many Aafias and Faisals joining the extremist camps even with post-graduate degrees in their hands. Brain injuries caused in early childhood can hardly be treated and reversed at later stages of life. The key measure of a de-radicalisation plan should therefore be a complete overhaul of the syllabus of the educational institutions of Pakistan.
Professor Khurshid Kamal Aziz catalogued historical inaccuracies in the textbooks of Pakistan in his popular book, Murder of History. The author lamented the fact that not only substandard books with low quality material were used as textbooks but more worryingly, the highly mischievous material in those books was populating vulnerable young minds with extremist ideas. Many research studies carried out by different organisations have arrived at similar conclusions with a recommendation that the syllabus of our schools needed drastic changes to bring it in consonance with the needs of modern times. The analysts conclude that the syllabus encourages preaching rather than teaching. It teems with lessons of hate against other faith communities of the world and stifles independent, critical and creative thinking.
Just look at the heavy bag of books carried grudgingly by a six-year-old child in Pakistan. At this innocent and imaginative age when he should be enjoying lessons through creative games and cartoon imagery, he is treated as a battleground by various ideologues. The Pakistani establishment since the first prime minister, Liaqat Ali Khan’s days wants him to become a true Pakistani according to the eyes of immigrant Indian Muslims; therefore, he has to learn Urdu first. The local politician wants him to be a true Sindhi or Pashtun so he is to be taught his mother tongue first. Those who are imbibed with divinity concerns want him to become a true Muslim first so he has to learn theological stuff first. The poor six-year-old is thus torn between these competing demands with no escape.
As a major measure of a de-radicalisation plan, the primary school syllabus needs complete redesigning. In my view, emphasis in the first three years of primary education should be less on teaching and more on developing the learning faculties of young children. Only three subjects should be taught for assessment purpose at this level: English, Maths and General Science. All moral lessons should be given through the fantasy world of children and not ours, as young children like simple stories with glossy images. Outright preaching should be avoided; however, some lessons about country and religion can be included in the English subject. At the moment, we are obsessed with thrusting all religious material down the throats of young children. But I like Mr Al Ghamdi’s argument that our focus should be on making children good humans through early education because if they become good humans then their chances of becoming good Muslims as a result will also be brighter.
In the early phase of primary education, there should be adequate provision of physical education and other activities that help in the development of learning faculties, e.g. team activities, clubs and visits. In the fourth year, Urdu and regional languages can be offered as optional subjects. We must realise that in the globalised world of today, English is the language of the internet, commerce and science. Urdu and regional languages may have importance in local terms but they add little value in the international competitiveness of our students. The current subject of Islamiat should be replaced by a subject called ‘Religion and Society’, in which up to 60 percent coverage can be given to Islamic beliefs, rituals and history while the remaining portion should cover the other major faiths of the world. The subject should also educate young students about human rights, rule of law and interfaith harmony. While genuine research on Pakistani culture and civilisation is to be welcomed, the Pakistan Studies subject taught in schools and higher education institutions has outlived its utility as it was introduced with the solitary aim of legitimising the Islamisation agenda of General Ziaul Haq. Basic information about Pakistan and its regions can be given in the English and Urdu subjects.
Of late, some attempts have been made to detoxify the school syllabus of obscurantist and hate preaching content. However, the patient needs drastic surgery and not just a little acupuncture.
(To be continued)
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org