As teenage education activist Malala Yousafzai prepares to receive her Nobel Peace Prize, the regional government in her homeland is pushing for Islamic content in school textbooks that critics claim promotes violent jihad.
Malala, 17, is set to be awarded for her struggle against religious extremism and for the right of children, especially girls, to an education in northwest Pakistan—where the Taliban tried to kill her two years ago.
The challenge is enormous: some 25 million children aged from five to 16 in Pakistan are out of school, 14 million of them girls, according to Alif Ailaan, an education campaign group. But the biggest debate surrounding education in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province is not how to improve attendance, hire more teachers or repair dilapidated infrastructure: instead, the regional government is attempting to determine how best to reclaim the curriculum in the name of Islam.
The move is being led by the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami, the junior member of the coalition led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf of opposition leader Imran Khan. “There are errors in current text books which go against our values,” said Inayatullah Khan, local governance minister.
The project foresees, for example, reintroducing verses of the Quran that deal with jihad, and adding passages on the divine creation of the universe into science textbooks. It also envisages rolling back changes made during the last period of reform, 2006, when authorities “removed religious chapters on social science texts” to replace them with “chapters on Nelson Mandela, Karl Marx, Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama and Neil Armstrong,” according to the minister. They also want to pull primary school textbooks that depict girls without veils. “We live in an Islamic society, women don’t wear skirts here,” said Khan.
The project, confirmed by provincial education minister Atif Khan, pertains to public schools as well as those private schools which do not have the means to procure their own texts—covering the vast majority of students in the province.
Liberals in Pakistan have denounced the moves in mainly English-language newspapers, saying they risk radicalizing impressionable youths.
The debate itself goes to the very heart of Pakistan’s identity crisis. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, the country has found itself caught in a struggle between pro-democracy liberals and religious conservatives who believe in a strict interpretation of shariah. Emphasis on Islam in non-religion related school texts began as early as the 1960s, but increased in the 1980s under the rule of hardline military dictator Zia-ul-Haq.
The two dominant political parties, the PPP of the Bhutto-Zardari family and the PMLN of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, project a more moderate vision.
In response to the provincial government’s plan, Sharif has launched a counter-attack by ordering the Higher Education Commission to seek changes to all texts, from primary to university level, to promote the country’s “democratic” heritage over its history of coups. The main problem however is that following recent devolution steps it is the provinces, not the central government, that have the final say on curriculum in order to cater to the region’s particular cultural and linguistic values.
“There is a lot of confusion at the moment,” with some provinces refusing to allow the central government to participate in the writing of texts, explains A. H. Nayyar, an academic and leading voice for reform.
Current textbooks are already heavily criticized by liberals, who say they project a revisionist version of history that is highly nationalistic, especially over the country’s rival India, while also being dismissive towards religious minorities.
Sardar Hussain Babak, a spokesman for the left-leaning Awami National Party that sits in opposition in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, blamed Imran Khan’s PTI for striking a deal with the Jamaat-e-Islami to ensure its fragile ruling coalition survived. “There is a compromise between Tehreek-e-Insaf and Jamaat-e-Islami. Now Jamaat-e-Islami points will be part of curriculum,” he said. “Jamaat-e-Islami is a radical religious party which is provoking jihad, definitely now jihadi elements will be part of curriculum.”
A recent U.S. study of 100 Pakistani school texts found that minorities, especially Hindus, were depicted as “second-class” citizens and “enemies of Islam.” The rhetoric is even more worrying for the country’s liberals than the rising number of attacks on religious minorities, saying it lays the groundwork for further radicalization.
Even the country’s Western donors, who give millions of dollars in education aid, are privately worried about the “re-Islamization trend.” Others see it as simply a populist move with little chance of succeeding in the short term. After the last set of reforms in 2006, authorities took seven years to print new editions, according to one Western diplomat.