Case Study - Pakistan: Education, Religion and Conflict

Foundation Update

Case Study - Pakistan: Education, Religion and Conflict

07 May 2015

Pakistan is in the midst of crisis. It is threatened by virulent extremist groups and is suffering from a failing education system that is poorly funded, politically manipulated and which promulgates an undefined Islamo-nationalist ideology that lays the foundations for widespread acceptance of ideologically motivated violence. Reforms to the curriculum have been legislated but are badly implemented by the country's politicians and the international community has largely turned a blind eye to these shortcomings. Unless aid and advocacy is specifically focused on far-reaching educational reform that directly tackles extremism, the long-term consequences will be extremely severe, writes Raza Rumi for our Global Perspectives Series.

Case Study- Pakistan: Education, Religion and Conflict

By Raza Rumi

Yet it would be unwise to consider madrasas as the main source of radicalisation. Since the 1970s the educational system and state curriculum has been used as a political tool for promoting an Islamo-nationalist ideology that is dangerously counter-democratic. In the words of Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani public intellectual, both schools and madrasas produce "fiery zealots, fuelled with a passion for jihad and martyrdom". P. Hoodbhoy, 'Can Pakistan Work? A Country in Search of Itself', Foreign Affairs, November/December 2004, [ Pakistan's education system urgently needs to be reimagined and restructured to ensure societal stability.

Pakistan's enduring internal conflict over the past few decades is well documented and often attributed to a dysfunctional foreign policy and restructuring of Pakistan's legal and political system to create a hybrid theocratic state. A. Siddiqa, 'Pakistan's Modernity: Between the Military and Militancy', Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLVI, No. 51, 17 December 2011, [ Two decades of geopolitical struggles centred in Afghanistan have not helped either. During the 1980s, the emergence of jihad as a policy tool backed by the international community was a watershed in the country's history. A deliberate state choice was made to use a violent version of jihad (struggle) as a counterweight to India and its influence in Afghanistan. Consequently, violent manifestations of Islamism have penetrated the fabric of Pakistani society through sectarian strife and the rise of the Pakistani Taliban as a force committed to annihilating the existing Pakistani regime. However, it would be simplistic to reduce the country's metamorphosis into a hybrid-theocracy to its foreign policy agenda alone.

Pakistan's birth in 1947 opened the question of identity, whereby the new nation was torn between the idea of transnational Islam and imperatives of a modern nation-state. Pakistan's successive governments, elected and unelected, have used Islam as a political tool. They have pandered to the demands of the religious right for the creation of an 'Islamic' state, given that the country was created for the 'welfare' of Muslims living in undivided British India. Islam was invoked as the unifying factor between the disparate Western and Eastern Wing, now Bangladesh, and insufficient attention was paid to the regional and ethnic quests for political expression and power sharing. Pakistan's dismemberment in 1971 therefore created another watershed where the influence of a more democratic and secular Eastern Wing disappeared, leaving the polity open to the re-assertion of an Islamist identity.

In 1973, Pakistan was declared an Islamic Republic and the avowedly 'secular' Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto began a process of Islamisation. Acceding to the demands of the religious lobbies, in 1974 the Ahmadiyya sect was declared 'non-Muslim'. By 1977 Bhutto had declared Friday as a holiday and banned alcohol and gambling. His successor, General Zia-ul-Haq, took this further, introducing a wide variety of sharia laws and ushering in an era of ideological statehood that continues to this day.

This, perhaps the most notable shift, saw the construction of what is now widely known as the 'ideology of Pakistan'. First introduced in the late 1960s during the government of General Yahya Khan, during the 1980s this vague, undefined notion was embedded into the constitution. The penal code was also amended to conflate the 'safety' and 'sovereignty' of Pakistan with 'ideology', creating an Islamo-nationalist identity of Pakistan that the highest officials of the state are bound to protect. See Section 123-A, Pakistan Penal Code, [].

Concurrently, Pakistan also witnessed the rise of religious extremism as a legitimate policy tool. This was employed to support the Afghan jihad and later the insurgency in Indian-occupied Kashmir, a key dispute between the two neighbours. Even civilian democrats have accepted this 'national security' agenda that entails an alliance with both violent and non-violent religious, sectarian and extremist groups to ensure Pakistan's defence against anticipated Indian aggression. This has meant that internal and external resources flowed to the religious right through charitable and private donations and foreign funding for the decade-long Afghan jihad. The religious right has therefore been able to organise its grassroots structures and propaganda capabilities to influence the functioning of the state. Over time, religious parties and sectarian-militant organisations have transformed into pressure groups with the ability to mobilise the streets through networks of mosques, religious seminaries and charities. The use of religion has become a legitimate mode of furthering political objectives.

The education system has been a major vehicle in creating support for jihadi ventures as well as in embedding an undefined Islamic 'ideology' as a core part of citizenship. During the 1980s, the state curriculum underwent radical revisions. The Zia regime decreed Islamic studies and Pakistan Studies as compulsory subjects for schools and universities, even for engineering and medicine degrees. By using religious instruction, the Pakistani state has systematically introduced generations to an exclusivist ideology, where a peculiar interpretation of jihad is propagated as part of security policy. M.S. Awan, 'Impact of Radical Islamisation of Education on Pakistani Society', Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2012, []. Today, this lays the foundations for widespread acceptance of ideologically motivated violence. Textbooks portray a victim narrative, where the entire world is conspiring against Muslims and Islam and Pakistan are under siege.

After 9/11, the Musharraf regime, under pressure from the international community, announced plans to revise the curriculum and to delete passages advocating jihad. In 2001 curriculum reforms were initiated but in a phased manner because of fears of a backlash from the religious right. In 2003, Pakistani authorities announced that a curriculum revision would take place every 5 years through an institutionalised process. B.R. Jamil, 'Curriculum Reforms in Pakistan – A Glass Half Full or Half Empty?', Presented to India's National Council of Educational Research and Training Conference, 10-12 August 2009, [], p. 3.In 2006, a new curriculum policy was also announced but it could not be fully implemented before Musharraf was ousted in 2007. In 2009, the new National Education Policy recognised that three parallel education systems, public, private and religious, had "created unequal opportunities for students." Ministry for Education Government of Pakistan, National Education Policy, 2009, [, p. 27. But, it failed to address the ideological components of the curriculum and no net increase in spending on education materialised. I. Junaidi, ‘Education budget decreased despite promises’,, 5 June 2014, [].

These reforms are urgently needed if Pakistan is to maintain and foster a democratic society. In 2004, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a Pakistani think tank, highlighted that the state-mandated curriculum "contained material that was directly contrary to the goals and values of a progressive, moderate and democratic Pakistan." A.H. Nayyar and A. Salim (eds.), ‘The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan’, Report of the project ‘A Civil Society Initiative in Curricula and Textbooks Reform, Pakistan, Sustainable Development Policy Institute, 2004, [], p. 8.A tenth grade textbook, for instance, tells students that,

"In Pakistan, ideology and foreign policy are intertwined. Pakistan is an ideological state and is based on Islamic ideology. The important objective of Pakistan's Foreign Policy is the defence of ideological frontiers. Pakistan's stability is also implicit in the protection of the Ideology of Pakistan. It can protect its ideology by establishing good relations with Islamic countries". Punjab: Mutalea Pakistan Class X, Urdu bazar Lahore, Gohar Publishers, p. 35.

This curriculum is not limited to public schools. Pakistan's growing demand for education has resulted in a mushrooming of private schools that are bound by the same curriculum. Millions of Pakistani children, over at least three generations, have been tutored in a quasi-Islamist, xenophobic and Muslim supremacist fashion.

Madrasas have also mushroomed across the country. According to Pakistan's Ministry of Education, in 2012 there were over 13,000 madrasas in the country. Of these religious schools, 97 percent are in the private sector with a total enrolment of nearly 1.8 million children. N. Amin et al, Pakistan Education Statistics 2011-12, Pakistan, Ministry of Education Government of Pakistan, 2013, [, p. 22. While this may be just less than five percent of the total of school going children, they produce Pakistan's mosque leaders and clerics. An overwhelming majority of madrasas belong to the Deobandi school of thought that is close to extremist Wahabi-Salafi thought and has trained the leadership of the Taliban movement.

Many in Pakistan agree that extremism is the key threat to the survival of the state and its society. With the rise of armed militias, of which there are currently at least three-dozen groups across the country, the space available to the national government for policy shifts has been greatly reduced. Today, politicians fear that they might open a Pandora's Box by changing the curriculum.

Since the amendments to the constitution in 2010, authority to set the curriculum has devolved to provincial governments. Progress in the past four years has not been encouraging. In the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, for example, there is an intense ideological struggle underway, with the Jamaat-e-Islami wishing to revise the earlier changes that secularised the curriculum. In the Punjab, clerics and their supporters in the media have resisted minor changes. Private schools have been dissuaded from teaching comparative religion as a subject. In the Sindh province, some changes have been made but it is unclear if they will hold given the power of the local Islamist groups. In the short to medium term, the situation is not likely to change and indoctrination will continue.

The madrasa reform story is even more instructive. In 2001, the Musharraf administration promulgated a 'Pakistan Madrasa Education Board Ordinance', despite resistance mounted by the religious lobby. F. ul-Islam, 'Reforms in Religious Madaris of Pakistan', The Dialogue, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2009, [, pp. 198-215. The new law mandated that madrasas should teach English, mathematics and computer science. Another law calling for voluntary registration and regulation was enacted in 2002, assuring state funding for madrasas that formally register with the government. G. Shabir, M.U.F. Abbasi and A. Khan, 'Reforming the Madrassah System', Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2012, [], pp. 147-156. Weak implementation and wide resistance has resulted in a small fraction of madrasas accepting curriculum reforms since then. K. Shahzad, 'Pakistan madrassa reforms in tatters', Hindustan Times, 16 July 2009, [

In early 2014, the current government launched the National Internal Security Policy (NISP). NISP identifies madrasas as a potential 'security' concern because of their ability to 'spread extremism' and their tendency to cultivate intolerant and 'violent religious attitudes'. Ministry of Interior Government of Pakistan, National Internal Security Policy 2014-2018, []. In a bold departure from the past, NISP states that madrasas are engaged in spreading radicalisation literature, advocate complete rejection of other beliefs and preach sectarian indoctrination. Thus NISP seeks to initiate a comprehensive review and reformation of the madrasa education system, and has called for laws "supporting the administration, financial audit and curriculum accreditation" of madrasas. Ministry of Interior Government of Pakistan, National Internal Security Policy: 2014-18, [], p. 6.

The Pakistani parliament has endorsed NISP, but little or no movement has been made towards its implementation. Not unlike previous reform efforts, this also seems to be falling victim to institutional inertia, a lack of political will and the fear of a backlash from the religious lobby. More importantly, negligible funds have been allocated to fulfil all these ambitious targets.

Since 2002, the international community has invested substantial resources to reform the education system of Pakistan. Under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package, the United States of America spent $450 million on education reforms in Pakistan over the period to 2012. USAID, USAID in Pakistan: Strengthening Our Partnership, Continuing Our Progress, Washington, USAID, 2013, [, p. 21. One of the aims of the USA's aid was to initiate changes in the curriculum. US Congress, 'Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009', 6 January 2009, []. The United Kingdom has also invested a sizeable portion of its aid into the education system. However, given the sensitivity of the issue, the UK is not making curriculum reform a priority, but is instead focusing on getting children back into classrooms.

This is all very well, but in the long term such a fragmented strategy is only likely to have negative consequences. The international community must not refrain from articulating the imperative of fixing Pakistan's education system and the ideological content of its curriculum. Aid packages must take stock of the way young minds are being influenced. Ultimately, it will need a broad coalition of Pakistan's political parties, civil society and media to initiate changes and build a consensus that radicalisation of young minds can only harm the country's future.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.


The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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