Extremist Narratives in Pakistan's Schools


Extremist Narratives in Pakistan's Schools

02 Sep 2014

In their report, 'Education Reform in Pakistan', the International Crisis Group finds that at the heart of the religious extremism and sectarian violence that plagues Pakistan lies a broken school curriculum that perpetuates divisive and discriminatory narratives.

A report from International Crisis Group (ICG) finds that Pakistan's education system is in crisis, with millions out of school in a "dilapidated and dysfunctional" public education sector. In a large number of cases madrasas (religious schools) fill this gap, many of which propagate religious extremism.

The current situation is linked back to the historically integral role of political Islam in the public education curriculum. According to ICG, this decision was just one facet of a more general process of Islamisation in Pakistan, aimed at legitimising authoritarian rule, and fostering a sense of what it meant to be Pakistani defined almost entirely in terms of Islamic identity. An example of this tendency picked out by the report was the narrative fostered in public schools that resistance to Indian rule in Kashmir was a religious duty and that all Hindus were enemies of Pakistan.

More recently, militant violence has exacerbated the dismal state of education

More recently, militant violence has exacerbated the dismal state of education, with jihadi groups destroying buildings, particularly at girls' schools, where terrorised parents have been forced to keep their daughters at home. The attack on schoolgirl and education activist Malala Yousafzai in October 2012 made headlines around the world, but the report claims that little has been done by Pakistan to curb these trends.

This situation is detrimental not just to the rights of children, but ultimately to the state's ability to combat extremism. ICG suggest that this neglect can only be reversed by overhauling a Pakistani curriculum that cultivates intolerance and xenophobia in young people.

The International Crisis Group recommends a number of urgent measures that would enable the Pakistani public education system to foster a more tolerant citizenry, encouraging peaceable attitudes both domestically and towards the outside world.

The report may be found in full here.

Key Findings
  • The eighteenth constitutional amendment devolved legislative and executive authority over education to the provinces to make it more responsive to local needs.
  • However, Pakistan's school curriculum still largely reflects an overly centralised state's priorities, emphasising national cohesion – within a rigid ideological framework – at the expense of regional and religious diversity.
  • Private schools, emerging largely in response to shortcomings in the public school system, account for 26 per cent of enrolment in rural areas and 59 per cent in urban centres but vary greatly in methodology, tuition and teacher qualifications. 
  • The madrasa (religious school) sector flourishes, with no meaningful efforts made to regulate the seminaries, many of which propagate religious and sectarian hatred.
Policy Recommendations
  • The Pakistani public education system needs to foster a tolerant citizenry, supportive of democratic norms within the country and peace with the outside world. 
  • Given the scale of local needs, donors and the private sector must be key partners with provincial governments, who need to become the principal drivers of reform.
  • Curriculum reform is essential and overdue to counter the challenge from the private schools, madrasas and religious schools of Islamic parties that fill the gaps of a dilapidated public education sector but contribute to religious extremism and sectarian violence.
  • Provincial governments must ensure that textbooks and teachers no longer convey an intolerant religious discourse and a distorted narrative, based on hatred of imagined enemies, local and foreign.
Face to Faith in Pakistan

Pakistan is a diverse country whose minority groups include Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Baha'is, Kalashs and Ahmadis. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation's schools programme Face to Faith facilitates interactions between students of different cultures and beliefs that result in lasting attitudinal change and emotional resonance. Face to Faith works to provide students with the skills required to break down barriers, promoting tolerant attitudes that help students to resist extremist voices.

Many schools in Pakistan are already teaching a Face to Faith curriculum consisting of modules cultivating the skills of dialogue and open-mindedness, engaging in videoconferences with schools across the world and accessing a secure online community where students can share views with their global peers.

A case study of the work of Face to Faith in Pakistan may be found here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 


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International Crisis Group