In Pakistan, one of the current and urgent issues under discussion is extremism, which has an indirect link with terrorism or use of violence against innocent people, including the most vulnerable segments of society – children and women. Similarly, places like schools, mosques and churches also come under attack. A marked change in recent times is the increasing focus on using the youth of the country for subversive activities by poisoning their minds.
Fortunately, at least 35 percent of Pakistan’s population is 15 years or younger. With proper education and training this could be turned into a tremendous human capital that could play a vital role in national development. But if we do not succeed in giving them the right kind of education and training, this huge opportunity could become a threat and the potential human capital can become a liability.
Before we explore the ways to curb extremism, we need to look at some of the major causes that lead people to become extremists. A major cause is the lack of justice in society as people do not have equal rights to exercise their freedom of thought, expression and choice. Discrimination can be observed on the basis of social class, gender, caste, colour and creed. An imposing process of social exclusion, naming and labelling creates a stigmatised identity of ‘others’ and a glorified identity of the dominant groups.
Similarly, there is an educational apartheid as educational institutions are now segregated along the lines of social class. There are elite educational institutions where only rich people can send their children and where people with limited resources cannot even think of sending their children. The judicial system is expensive and slow in pace and an ordinary person with low economic and social capital finds it difficult to cross all the steps (hurdles) to find justice.
In the domain of politics, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to contest and win in the national elections as winning is linked with biradari and financial strength. Thus we can see social, judicial, political and educational exclusion of a large number of people in our society. Such people – for whom all the doors of opportunities are closed – are prone to develop extremist tendencies and are inclined to be exploited by external forces for violent activities.
Now let us look at the various social institutions that play an important part in the construction of personality and belief systems of a child. The first and foremost social institution is family. Unfortunately, fast-paced life has left little time for parents to spend with their children. The early years of a child are dedicated to TV screens where cartoons occupy a major part of their time. A number of cartoons not only glorify cheating and lying, but also inculcate love for violence in a very subtle manner.
As children grow older, they are further exposed to action movies and free-style wrestling where injuries and pains of wrestlers are directly proportional to the joy and pleasure of the audience. Such programmes help growing children become sadists who derive pleasure from torturing others. This simply means that in most cases the social institution of family has become dysfunctional and is taken over by the media and the cyber world.
Besides family and the media, another important social institution is school/college/university. This social institution is an important player that contributes in the making of the youth’s personality. In our mainstream schools, education is dubbed as the transmission of knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another. Knowledge is viewed as a fixed entity and the assessment system – to a large extent – is devoid of higher order thinking skills. There is hardly any room for creativity and innovation.
A student who deviates from the standard given answer is penalised. In most classrooms, questions by students are discouraged. When these students reach colleges they develop the habit of conformity and find it handy to reproduce standard answers and get good grades. Instead of allowing differences of opinions and alternative views, a melting pot approach is adopted where there is little room for diversity and disagreement. An assessment system that encourages students to recall only does not allow for much thinking.
Thus education – whose main objective should be development and freedom – instead of encouraging and inculcating critical thinking skills in students, encourages the trait of conformity. After graduation when these students enter the practical field, they hardly find themselves pushed to challenge some of the taboos in society.
Co-curricular activities that occur outside the classroom are an important part of the curriculum. These activities may include debates, creative writing, drama, music and sports. In the current educational scenario, such activities are not considered important. Thus a very important source of holistic development of personality is being undermined in most of educational institutions. Such activities give positive engagement to students and act as a catharsis. In the absence of these positive and constructive co-curricular activities, students are susceptible to non-constructive activities.
Thus to cope with the menace of extremism and terrorism, we need to have a more comprehensive approach. This, on the one hand may employ the legitimate use of force to curb terrorist activities and on the other hand strive for a detailed plan for a more just society where people are not segregated on the pretexts of ethnicity, gender, colour, creed and social class.
There is an urgent need to revisit the curricula, engage students in co-curricular activities, expose the faculty to effective training, change the pedagogical practices that focus on inculcating critical thinking, allow room for diversity and aim at producing thinking and responsible citizens. This will only be possible when knowledge is not viewed as something fixed and students are not indoctrinated but trained in critical thinking. This will ensure that they raise questions and instead of embracing socially constructed stereotypes blindly, look for potential alternatives.
The writer is an educationist.