For quite some time, I’ve been deeply concerned about what I’d been reading about Pakistan, which described a country very different from the one I’ve come to know and be a part of these past forty years. Sparked by the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, I set out to discover what Pakistanis are really doing to recapture indigenous cultural identity and create alternative narratives to violence and extremism. I found many ‘sparks of hope’ who are asserting they want their cultural identity back, their society intact, and throw off the bondages of hatred, violence and fear that at least for a while seemed to break out at any time in Pakistan. I found so many people who are engaging in powerful actions that transform how people think about their own society while acting on envisioning a future without violence. While I didn’t set out to do so, the resultant book also celebrates what is flourishing in cultural performances, music, social activism, and the like in Pakistan today because of peoples’ commitment to take stands to counter violent extremism.
In my last article, I wrote about how religious leaders are taking action to promote interfaith harmony. Today, I am writing about another theme I explored in the book, that is the challenges that Pakistan has faced to provide substantive primary education to all children in the country. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah referred to them as “the nation builders of tomorrow,” who must “fully equip themselves by discipline, education, and training for the arduous task lying ahead of them.” But how can they do so when the knowledge and teaching capacity of many teachers, quality of physical buildings, and even the curriculum of what is being taught is lacking? Primary education at its best is a transformative experience not only preparing students for future careers but also to instill values of social responsibility, tolerance, and aversion to violence. The dearth of schools adequately preparing students in Pakistan for the myriad roles they can play in the country’s future economically and politically pales in importance to the reality they could play as social unifiers, encouraging values of acceptance of diversity, negotiation when disputes arise, community responsibility (more than just to one’s own family), and personal responsibility to the surrounding environment. This could go far in countering violence and extremism as students would then grow up to shun participating in violence as an option as they grow older.
In Pakistan, the colonial legacy left a situation where select schools were attended by elites who were socialized into seeing themselves as the country’s leaders, united through the usage of English. Educational opportunities for the rest of the population were largely ignored and the quality of instruction problematic, including efforts at inculcating a sense of civic obligation, what Muslim sociologist Ibn Khaldun called asabiyya, group feeling, social solidarity and a sense of shared purpose. Pakistan’s schools have not prioritized this kind of preparation, as A.H. Nayyer and Ahmed Salim have argued, “from the very beginning, the educational system in Pakistan has been aimed at reinforcing one particular view of Pakistani nationalism and identity, namely that Pakistan is an Islamic state rather than a country with a majority Muslim population.” Instead of teaching social responsibility, they found that curricula and textbooks in most government schools are largely insensitive to religious diversity within the country, fueling discrimination and bias and that “Pakistani nationalism is repeatedly defined in a manner that excludes non-Muslim Pakistanis from either being Pakistani nationals or from even being good human beings. Much of this material runs counter to any efforts at national integration.”
Both systems are seeking to provide an outstanding educational foundation for their students while also inculcating a sense of social responsibility, Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyya
The Government of Pakistan today says it is trying to rectify systemic inequities by introducing a Single National Curriculum (SNC) so that children in all schools will be learning the same things. However, the plan falls short by not including funding for teacher training nor to improve the schools’ physical infrastructure. However, most importantly, the SNC has been criticized because of its lack of recognition that educational inequality exists in Pakistan not just because students are studying different curricula but because of the huge class differences that exist, resulting in about 38 percent of poor children being stunted, blocked from reaching their full growth potential. Added to this is the huge emphasis on the teachings of the Qur’an and Islam, the effects of which is insensitivity to religious diversity, reinforcing Nayyer and Salim’s findings that schools lay a foundation for discrimination and alienation against non-Muslims.
Pakistan’s schools falling short of providing a sound, constructive education result in many social dislocations including, for some, seeing extremism as a viable option for achieving goals. Hence the urgency to envision schools that will not only provide a solid education but also a passion for living in a peaceful, flourishing community. I have found something exciting and innovative occurring in two private, not-for-profit education systems that are located in areas that have experienced the greatest violence from extremism in Pakistan: the Bacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Zoya Science Schools in southern Punjab. Both systems are seeking to provide an outstanding educational foundation for their students while also inculcating a sense of social responsibility, Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyya. These two school systems are providing models of how to prioritize communal respect, appreciate diversity and value environmental responsibility while delivering an outstanding free education to poor girls and boys in areas that have been wracked by violent extremism, something the public education system still finds elusive 75 years after Independence.
The Bacha Khan Trust, a legacy of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988), popularly known as Bacha Khan, created the Bacha Khan Educational Foundation Trust in 2007, in line with its priorities to promote social reform. Its mandate was to work towards the “promotion and development of peace, human rights, interfaith harmony and socio-economic uplift of the society through an extended educational program” in northwest Pakistan. The Bacha Khan schools stand for human dignity and cooperation, for the rights of people to govern themselves, to control their own resources, and resist those forces that hinder or impede the rights of people or perpetrate violence.
Its alternative education model promotes critical thinking, the development of multiple skills, builds on local, indigenous knowledge, the development of civic and aesthetic senses, and environmental consciousness. For the latter, students are tasked with the responsibility of keeping their classrooms and their school clean and, where possible, tend the community gardens within the school’s premises. The goals of the Bacha Khan Schools, therefore, are not simply education — which they deliver very well — but inner transformation of each student to see themselves as a social actor and reclaim indigenous identify. The cultural education component includes visual arts, performing arts, crafts, and folklore in all classes, which connect students with indigenous values as well as with modern technology. Students are urged to raise questions, while violence of any type is absolutely forbidden.
I spoke with students at various Bacha Khan schools who easily articulated why they were enthusiastic about their schools, using specifics, even from an early age. The zero-tolerance policy for fighting and violence, consistent with Bacha Khan’s philosophy, was very popular at every school I visited. One student said, “It is peaceful here. They also teach us well and don’t beat us. They talk to us in a polite manner.” Another one said, “The messages of peace in the textbooks here are beautiful.” When replying what they want to do when they grow up, nearly universally they aspire to do something positive for their communities and be of service to others. One student stated, “I want to be a peacemaker. I will write for people in case they’re too sick to write on their own. I will also help the elderly and be kind to the younger ones and I will not hold grudges against my friends.” Another intends “to spread the philosophy of peace. Instead of aiming a gun at wrongdoers, I’ll gift them with grains of wheat.” A religiously-inclined student said, “I want to be a teacher at a madrasa. I will teach the Qur’an and other teachings about patience and tolerance.” Indeed, students were convinced they will be able to contribute to Pakistan and make it a better, more equitable country. One said, “We will bring peace to our country, and we will educate ourselves. Whoever fights, we will stop them from fighting.” The maturity they displayed was notable and impressive.
Both kinds of curriculum, at the Bacha Khan schools and the Zoya Science Schools, are proving to be powerful ways to claim authentic identity, imbibe knowledge and counter violence and extremism
There is another private, not-for-profit educational system far from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but in an area that has also experienced a great deal of violence, southern Punjab. The Zoya Science Schools prioritize STEM – science, technology and math — subjects, while also encouraging students to work to build a better and peaceful future for Pakistan. They are built right next to poor bastis (slums) so their students, as well as their teachers, can walk to the school. There are seven schools in the Kot Addu region outside of Multan and in nearby Muzaffargarh. Most of the areas where the schools are built have no other school nearby.
Sarmad Khwaja, the founder of the Zoya Science Schools, has dedicated himself to educating children from poor families in his late daughter Zoya’s name, as a memorial to her and her passion for science and the empowerment of girls. He developed the curriculum using mnemonics, to make difficult concepts easy to understand and remember by designing experiments that children themselves can do. It blends scientific understanding with interwoven humanistic priorities, promoting empirical rigor to justify beliefs and ideas. The pedagogical goals of the Zoya Science schools share some similarities with those of the Bacha Khan schools, but a key emphasis is math and science (and no mention of Bacha Khan in this Punjabi environment). The schools also address “the wider condition and needs of society,” promoting citizenship in classrooms with posters on children’s rights and singing songs of liberation and tolerance. The medium of science instruction is Seraiki, the local language, to enable better understanding, supplemented by poems and songs in Seraiki to teach the fundamentals of math and science.
The areas where Zoya Science Schools are built are severely impoverished. They conducted a survey of children in three schools and found that 90 percent were short and underweight, stunted. They began a nutrition program to provide food for the children at those schools.
I spoke with many teachers and students at various Zoya Science Schools and learned that many of the areas had endured a lot of violence; when I talked with students about terrorism, their responses made it apparent that many had personal experiences with violence. However, they were optimistic that they could have a positive impact on Pakistan, similar to responses I had heard at the Bacha Khan schools. For example, a student told me, “Peace is necessary for every country, and we should spread the message that we should work hard towards having a peaceful society. We have to educate people and teach them how important peace is.” Another student said, “We need to get rid of sectarian conflict so we can all become one nation and one country, period.” They are very aware of class divisions in society too, as a student noted, “Wealthy people should treat poor people respectfully, but they often don’t. Otherwise, poor people will just turn into terrorists. So poor people should be treated well.”
Both kinds of curriculum, at the Bacha Khan schools and the Zoya Science Schools, are proving to be powerful ways to claim authentic identity, imbibe knowledge and counter violence and extremism. These two school systems – and the students who emerge from them – are indeed a breed apart from mainstream schools and madrasas in Pakistan.
Note: This has been excerpted from Anita M. Weiss – Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan: Local Actions, Local Voices (Oxford University Press, 2020)