Education has never been high on the agenda of the state, and although there is a state education system that is theoretically open to all it is eternally underfunded, poorly resourced and staffed by indifferently trained teachers.
The non-formal education sector – comprising the madressah schools – is no better and both teach a curriculum that, according to a recent report, does nothing to ease the tensions which bedevil our society. In particular it highlights the prejudice against minority groups, the mass failure of teachers to understand the role and place of minorities in our society and consolidates an intolerant mindset in students at all levels.
The report, “Connecting the dots, education and religious discrimination in Pakistan” by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom is something of a bitter irony as many of the problems in our education system stem from the era of General Zia, a dictator enthusiastically supported at the time by the US.
The findings of the report show how deeply ingrained the extremist mindset is, and go some way to explaining why militancy is often supported, tolerated or simply excused. It is because our children are being taught in such a way as to develop a set of normative values that are discriminatory and prejudicial; and it is thus hardly surprising if, after 50 years of indoctrination from kindergarten upwards we have a radicalised society.
This report cannot be dismissed as mere propaganda. The study that is its foundation is based on visits to 37 public schools and the interviews of 277 students and teachers; the researchers visited 19 madressahs, interviewed 226 students and teachers and reviewed 100 textbooks from grade one to 10.
The study warns that any effort to combat religious discrimination is likely to meet stiff resistance from well-placed extremists in the education establishment and the government of the day, whatever its political stripe. The current dispensation, despite paying lip-service to curricular revision, the rewriting of textbooks and a system of regulation and registration for madressah schools, has made little real effort in the direction of reform and there is little likelihood that any successor government will be any keener to reform education either.
According to a Pew report in August 2011 Pakistan has the third least tolerant population in the world in terms of social acceptance of religious diversity. Those attitudes did not spring into young minds spontaneously; they were planted there either by malice or mistake.
Our children are our invaluable social capital, and they are being taught to fail both themselves as people in adult life with flawed perceptions and cancerous prejudices and as a wider citizenry whose collective mind has been tainted from early childhood.
If we are to ever grow and move forward as a state we need to ensure that our children go into the adult world equipped not just with knowledge, but a set of values that command respect. In the latter we are failing, and we stand and watch as generation after generation slides in the direction of the extremist.
The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email: [email protected]