Reacting to protest marches called “Aurat March” this year by women who want to control their lives in matters of education and marriage, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced: “We will, hopefully by next year, introduce a core syllabus for all schools that will be mandatory for students apart from the additional subjects each institution chooses to teach. This is how you create a nation. This is how you end rival cultures from developing. The Aurat March that just happened… a different culture was visible in it. this is a cultural issue and this comes from the schooling system”.
What he hinted at was that the “liberated” women who wanted more rights were “Western educated” and were responsible for the societal divide that his government would end by adopting a “uniform education system”. The obvious inference from his remark is that he would like to “merge” Urdu and English-medium education with the madrassas or the religious schools functioning in the country: He would be less able to prune the extremist religious-ideological material in the Urdu-medium-madrassa sector while expurgating the “liberal” aspect of the English-medium sector.
Pakistan’s educational system has consistently opposed the “liberalism” that the growing middle class allows its children to imbibe in the English-medium sector. There was a time when Khan used to accuse his “modernised” opponents of “liberal fascism”. But no one ideologically inclined thinks of tackling the extremism nurtured by the Urdu-medium and madrassa sectors.
Given Pakistan’s poor level of intellectual sophistication, the project of educational reform under Khan runs the risk of becoming Boko Haram — which translates literally to “Western education is forbidden” — since 2009. As a movement of the Muslims of northern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s army of Islamic soldiers has killed more than two million people, and kidnapped and raped thousands of Muslim girls.
The uniformity of mind created in the state-sector schools is a kind of preparation for the final takeover by the pure madrassa stream — the utopia Pakistan aspires to. A majority of the suicide-bomber boys who did the dirty work of the Taliban came from the state-run schools. The madrassas, on the other hand, provided the warriors that waged cross-border jihad and at times, defied the patron-state itself. Today, Pakistan is simply not intellectually equipped to handle the problem it has posited to itself. The most locked mind in Pakistan is located inside the educational bureaucracy serving in the federal and provincial ministries.
Khan might create a system that would still have two streams: Urdu-medium and the madrassas. Will this create the “single” system he wants? Given the general intellectual backwardness of Muslims from Nigeria to Indonesia, he might end up isolating Pakistan further through a “new mind” embracing the isolationism of Iran.
Why is Pakistan upset by the “three streams”? Pakistan is going through a withering process of isolationism, which is another word for turning inwards and showing hostility towards anything smelling of foreignness. Liberalism is under attack and liberal education is already not in favour even in the private sector stream where the financiers know it pays to create space for ideology and uniformity of the mind.
Pakistani scholar Madiha Afzal in her book Pakistan under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State, observes: “While education appears to make people less favourable toward terrorist groups, there is also a worrying increase in favourability toward these groups at the secondary school level. My analysis of Pakistan Studies textbooks helped explain why that is the case: The books set up a framework of the world in which Pakistan is viewed as the victim of conspiracies of both India and the West, and Pakistanis and Muslims are pitched in opposition to other countries and religions.”
This article appeared in the print edition of May 9, 2020, under the title ‘Turning inwards, Locking minds’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan
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