By Hassan Javid
Once again, we have all been saved by the tireless efforts of the self-appointed custodians of Pakistan’s morality. Not ones for overlooking even the slightest perceived affront to their sensibilities, the intellectual and moral titans of the JI have apparently spent more than a year campaigning against the curriculum reforms introduced in KP by the previous ANP government.
After presumably poring over a couple of primary schoolbooks, and busily failing to consult anyone who might actually have some expertise in the area of education, the JI, predictably enough, forwarded ‘demands’ to the PTI-led government in KP, calling for, amongst other things, the removal of the phrase ‘good morning’, the elimination of all images of minor girls not wearing dupattas, the banning of any pictures of ambulances with crosses on them, and the reintroduction of ‘Islamic’ material in the place of ‘objectionable’, secular content covering controversial issues like the life of Helen Keller and the place of Ranjit Singh in Punjab’s history.
Society has thus been saved from complete and total annihilation, and we can all rest easy knowing that through these measures, the JI has singlehandedly struck a mighty blow against the problems that currently plague Pakistan. Or so the party would have you believe.
As even the most uninterested and uninformed observer might note, the JI’s recommendations on curriculum reform do not seem to have much to do with actually improving educational attainment and outcomes in KP. Amidst all the vitriol directed against shadowy ‘external forces’ and dangerous secular agendas, there does not appear to be any attempt to address the fact that many primary and secondary school students in KP and, indeed, in the rest of Pakistan, would fail even the most rudimentary tests of numeracy and literacy. In fact, given the content of the JI’s proposed ‘reforms’, and the relentless way in which they have been pursued, one might even think that they had little to do with education and were, in fact, nothing more than a means through which to indoctrinate young children with a very specific vision of society in line with the JI’s own parochial and doctrinaire interpretation of Islam.
Even a cursory glance at textbooks in public sector schools and universities across Pakistan illustrates the scale of the problem, and the extent to which education in this country has been hijacked by moral crusaders legitimizing their monopoly of the public discourse with constant reference to the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’. Again and again, students across Pakistan are told that this country was made in the name of Islam, and that any deviations from orthodox Sunni belief are in equal parts heresy and treason. Alternative points of view and interpretations of history are systematically excluded from classrooms, and students are fed a constant diet of intolerance and bigotry. Rather than learning more about the world around them, they are, from primary school onwards, trapped in echo chambers within which the religious Right continues to poison their minds with a view of the world predicated on hate and an inability to engage with difference of any kind.
When Pakistan Studies and Islamiyat were first introduced as compulsory subjects in the 1970s, it was done in order to appease an increasingly vocal religious lobby. However, from the very beginning, the state in Pakistan has sought to propagate a national identity rooted in Islam as part of its efforts to undermine the salience of ethnic differences and, more importantly, the inequalities generated by perceived Punjabi dominance. This was doubly true at a time when Bengal’s demographic majority served as a credible threat to the predominantly Punjabi establishment. Focusing on perpetuating the notion that Pakistan was and is primarily an Islamic state, locked in an existential struggle against external actors defined primarily by their religion, also served to provide a justification for the military’s disproportionate role in Pakistan’s politics and public life, with Islam providing an easily deployable idiom through which to vilify India and magnify the threat imposed by that country.
This also helped to entrench and embolden parties like the JI, who could be relied upon by the Establishment to perform the dual role of furthering this ideological agenda, with all of its attendant political effects, and attacking any actors, political or otherwise, who dared to question the role played by religion in Pakistan’s public life. It was in this context that Zia’s Islamization took place, as well as the overt radicalization, through madrassahs and seminaries, that laid the groundwork for contemporary Islamist militancy and extremism in Pakistan.
While defenders of this policy continue to claim that the curriculum’s emphasis on Islam is necessary to forge national unity, it is clear that it has failed to achieve this and has, instead, been counterproductive. Pakistan’s serious ethnic divisions remain in place, despite decades of indoctrination, precisely because the state’s misguided ideological approach has obscured the need to enact the types of reforms that could address the root causes of ethno-nationalist conflict. The outright emphasis on violent Jihad in the 1980s and the 1990s, coupled with an increasingly narrow and parochial focus on conflating Islam with a orthodox Sunni belief, has also made things worse, breeding support for fanaticism and even fuelling sectarianism and terrorism. It is not coincidental that the state’s fusion of religion, ideology, and education, as well as the efforts of its cheerleaders on the religious Right, have gone hand in hand with rising public paranoia about ‘foreign hands’ intent on sabotaging Pakistan, skepticism about science, and an escalating inability to entertain or even countenance dissent. It has created an environment in which provincial ministers can, without a hint of irony, claim that the bare heads of little girls pose more of a threat to society than the bombs and bullets used by religious fanatics.
In this context, the PTI’s decision to agree to the JI’s demands must be condemned as nothing more than craven cowardice and spineless capitulation of the worst kind. For all their faults, it must be acknowledged that the ANP forged ahead with its commitment to progressive curriculum reform despite being the subject of sustained attacks by the Taliban that claimed the lives of almost six hundred ANP workers and leaders. The PTI, on the other hand, has reversed all of this without a shot being fired, valuing the preservation of its coalition government over any principles it might have had. It is naked opportunism, sacrificing the public good at the altar of political expediency.
At a time when Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in FATA have been openly distributing literature and pamphlets in Peshawar, and at a time when the entire nation continues to pay the price for past policies that promoted radicalization, agreeing to the JI’s ideological agenda, despite knowing the costs of doing so, demonstrates the confusion and lack of clarity that have always defined the PTI as a party. For those who have a less sympathetic view of the PTI, it simply proves what has long been suspected; that the PTI is essentially on the same ideological page as the Establishment and its cronies on the religious Right. Either way, it shows that the PTI is not a party that can be trusted with charting a new course for Pakistan.—The Nation