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Militancy trumps education on Pakistan frontier


Pakistan students' fingers following text in bookThe state of education in Pakistan has been grim ever since the nation's inception, and with the onset of militancy since 2001 the situation has become worse. With militants firmly holding the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the already low literacy rate of 29 per cent has nosedived to 17 per cent in the region.

Pakistan has, time and again, been included in the list of developing countries, but unlike its competitors, it has an abysmally low literacy rate. Only one quarter of the adults in Pakistan are literate. The measly 2 per cent GDP spending on education reveals the level of seriousness among policy makers regarding this issue. Although Pakistan has had to face various crises over the past decade, education was never given due consideration.

The current spate of militancy and violence in the FATA and its implications on stability, especially of the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP) province, has drawn the attention of the world. This wave of terror that hit KP, FATA and other parts of Pakistan after September 11 not only damaged the economy but also the education foundations.

The province, which used to be a land of hospitality, became a breeding ground for militants. Schools were blown up and students threatened not to pursue 'worldly' education — i.e. any form of education other than Islam.

The roots of the deteriorating state of education can be traced back to the 1980s when President Zia's regime supported the US war against Soviet expansion. Religious schools, madaris, were transformed into Jihadi training institutes. Rural students seeking education in madaris were indoctrinated as guerilla fighters in the name of religion and war against the infidels (communists).

The curriculum developed for madaris propagated militant Islamic Jihad and contributed to the evolution of militancy. Even today, madaris are perceived as places of affordable education by common rural dwellers, while to the outer world, they remain breeding grounds for militancy.

This suspicion to some extents holds correct as most of this religious schools are unregistered. (With registration, the curriculum is regulated by state officials, who help keep a check over the activities.)

The fear of terrorism halted all recreational activities in educational institutes from 2003 to 2011. Female students felt pressured to use veils to avoid negative consequences from the Taliban. Co-education institutes received constant threats of suicide attacks.

Militancy spread a wave of panic among students. Faizan Azeem Khan, a bachelor's student from South Waziristan (FATA) recalls:

Militancy has set us apart from our relatives and ... I don't think I'll ever get a chance have a reunion with them in Waziristan. This situation has put a drastic effect on my education due to stress and anxiety. The militants only seem to have one agenda ... stop the youth from attaining worldly education.

The government, to a large extent, holds responsibility for not taking solid measures to curb militancy through education. This is because the already low GDP spending on education of 2.5 per cent (in 2006) has been cut to 2 per cent (in 2012) by the current government.

Militancy, coupled with substantial cuts in higher education spending, has led to the abandonment of various educational projects in KP. The recent decision by the government devolving the Higher Education Commission to provincial governments also put a dent in the future education prospects of financially weak provinces.

Higher education projects planned for Hangu, North Waziristan and Bajaur had to be shelved due to concerns of reaction from militant organisations; as a result, hundreds of scholarships offered for FATA students were wasted. This was heartbreak for thousands of students for whom the universities of Peshawar were inaccessible.

Recent educational setbacks in KP as a consequence of militancy include the destruction of more than 700 schools, loss of infrastructure worth millions of dollars, kidnapping of Ajmal Khan — a moderate founding vice chancellor of a renowned university, and attacks on school transport resulting in deaths of innocent students.

The staggering difference between public and private sector education standards leads to decreasing employment opportunities for the underprivileged, generating a sense of frustration among the masses, which in turn opens them up to the influence of the militant organisations.

Substantive measures need be taken to eliminate roots of extremism from the madaris of Pakistan. The government needs to realise that maintaining an ambiguous policy on militancy and minimal spending on education and development will not help in nurturing future moderate leaders.

Calls for total eradication of madaris hold little logic as most of Pakistan's population, which is living below the poverty line, depends on this free source of education.

Grass roots reforms, such as those introduced by the nonprofit sector, need to be introduced in these seminaries, to impart for example vocational and computer skills to the students. In coming years, bringing reforms to the structure of madaris and implementing a uniform curriculum would be of utmost importance in order to nurture generations of enlightened youth and ensure they are equipped to face the challenges ahead.

Farooq Yousaf headshotFarooq Yousaf is a research analyst, program consultant and content editor at the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Topic tags: Farooq Yousaf, Pakistan, education



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Existing comments

Pakistan is clearly such a failed state it should be listed with North Korea, Burma and a wide range of gangster run nations in Africa,and treated accordingly by the rest of the world. Why any Western nation would continue to have anything to do with any politician or business there is a real mystery, apart from the riches to be gleaned from its poverty struck population of course. Once again, the imposition of colonial powers from years ago has left us with a basketcase nation that is going nowhere, with a population satisfied with going nowhere. Now supported by the USA and many other Western nations, it looks as if there is no chance of any 'progress' for this mob-ruled dictatorship of terror.

Andy Fitzharry | 25 September 2012  

Dear Andy, I would humbly differ from your opinion as what ever you said generalizes Pakistanis as a nation. But this is not the case. You are correct that some sections of our society are driven by emotion and religion. But many of us, like myself, are speaking against the establishment, the corrupt politicians, and above all the militants. We even speak against burning flags of western states, and as a consequence, our friends and peers subject us to offensive remarks. Things are changing, its not only what you see on TV and Media, rather the ground realities are slowly changing with the people's narrative changing. Its people like you who have to help us come out of this mess, rather than criticising us as an angry mob. Our media and young writers are full of opposition to whatever that is happening. But still, you comment has weight, and I cant criticise it as most of it is true. We have to shed foreign dependencies and then we can think of progress.

Farooq | 25 September 2012  

Thank you for both your article and courteous and informative answer to Andy, Farooq. Pakistan has considerable problems but I think the tag "failed state" is not correct. Most Pakistani students in Australia, if they know you know something about their country, are quite open when speaking of the good and bad about it to you. I think it is necessary for more Australians to know about the country's problems and the brave way many of its citizens, such as you and others, are confronting them, to make it and the world a better and safer place. Pakistan has many good things going for it, such as the way the courts are operating free of political manipulation and the fact that the current elected government, for the first time in its history, is set to serve out a full term without, seemingly, any fear of military intervention. Due to its population; military clout and location, Pakistan is a key member of the Muslim World and absolutely crucial in creating a peaceful South and Central Asia. ES is to be congratulated on publishing your article. Australians need to hear more Pakistani voices such as yours and the renowned journalist Ahmad Rashid to get a far more balanced view of the country than they do from the TV news, which tends to concentrate on disasters and emergencies.

Edward F | 26 September 2012  

Farooq, I understand your point, that people such as yourself clearly do not support the status quo, something your article made clear, to me at least, so I felt no need to comment on it. However, perhaps I should have praised you for speaking out and for probably putting yourself on the line with your countrymen, or many of them anyway. I have a Pakistani friend who lives here, from a very wealthy family over there, who returned not so long ago and told of his stay there. His family is totally immune to the grime and poverty, apart from wallowing in their wealth amongst it all of course, but he explained how where ever he went he had an armed guard with him, on the family payroll. The guard was a supporter of, if not actually in, the Taliban, as, so he explained, most of the pooer people who glanced upon during his time there were. Let's face it Farooq, religious nutters power the USA as much as Pakistan, or Israel, or Egypt or increasingly Britain. Even here in Australia, although a far cry from the madness of Islamic (certain Islamic) identities, there is an overerly loud, shrill even, voice of far-right Christianity at work influencing the political path of our nation-state. Unfortunately, our media is as blind to the corruption of due process as the Pakistan media, and the USA media are, so we all suffer, right around the world, from the rantings of religious maniacs and those who hang off their coat tails with their steely grip on power. There may be a modest glimmer of hope for Pakistan though - at least it is not Afghanistan.

Andy Fitzharry | 26 September 2012  

I think Andy Fitzharry may be well and truly off the mark with what appears a conspiracy theory: that the governments of Pakistan and the USA are under the control of religious extremists. The whole point of Farooq's article was that undue extremist influence in Pakistani education can be prevented but that practical steps to do this must be taken now. Education and the opportunities it provides for a better life are probably the best counter to extremism. He did point out that opportunities for non-madari education in the FATA had actually diminished as a result of government funding cuts. The area he refers to is basically Pushtun territory and the Pushtun people, who exist on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border, have been the strongest supporters of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Religious extremists in both countries are strongly against the education of women despite the founder of Islam's strong support of it. Many ordinary uneducated Pakistanis, like Andy's friend's driver, support the Taliban because they see them as a counter to what they consider a corrupt civilian government. The irony is that there are Pakistanis in all walks of life: politics; the judiciary; academia; the media and even the Armed Forces who are anti-corruption and want to change the current status quo. They do have a good chance within what appears to be a functioning democracy: something we in the West need to support. I think Andy and others who share his views may be pleasantly disabused by reading some contemporary Pakistani authors, such as the novelist Muhsin Hamid, whose website http://www.mohsinhamid.com/home.html contains some extremely informative essays on current events.

Edward F | 26 September 2012  

Thank you both for your insights and I should thank you for understanding my point. The fact is, even writing for South, Central Asian and Pakistani news sources, I felt that I must also write something for an Australian source.

I guess people on both the sides are not aware of what is happening on both the sides.

I am 24, a student of Conflict and Public Policy, and soon moving to Germany. The reason? even having a strong faith and religious values, I dont support religion's use in politics, I dont believe in attacking other religions and I am totally against burning of flags, coupled with Killing of US ambassador in libya. These are all inhumane acts, and talking against them tag me as an infidel in my country.

This is the situation we have to live in. But its coz of a selected extremist mindset among a few. This wont mean that Pakistan is bad, I am a proud Pakistani, its just that we have to fight this small section of extremists through pen and aware the world about what is happening.

I hope one day we see a world based primarily on Humanity and not Religion.

Farooq | 27 September 2012  

I note there is not even a token referene to education for women. That's really scary.

mary ellen | 27 September 2012  

Thank you for your article and your replies to us, Farooq. I wish you success and happiness during your time in Germany. It is, I believe, a good place to study in and experience what is both good and bad in the West. Like many educated Pakistanis you may well return one day to benefit your country. The Muslim World seems to be going through an extremely difficult time. There are always fringe elements trying to push their blinkered view of religion on people at times like this. Ziauddin Sardar, Pakistani by birth and an acute observer of the Muslim World, gave a rather chilling view of some of the closed minds produced by the Deobandi madrasas of Pakistan in "Desperately Seeking Paradise": his story of a personal quest to find true Islamic identity in the modern world. It is interesting that Professor Sardar and others have actually found their own Islamic identity in the West. This is, I think, due to the intellectual and other freedom here. They are proud to be Muslim, but neither ignorant nor fanatical, but in the true spirit of that great religion. The other good thing about him and others similar to him is that they can intellectually engage with the West on its own terms without fear or rancour. The supposed West/Islam conflict, which I believe does not exist in essence, but which is stirred up for political ends by the worst people needs to be addressed and defused. Pray God it is for that will make the world a better place for all concerned. Once again, thank you and my very best wishes to you.

Edward F | 30 September 2012  

greatly appreciate you views and opinion being rendered by you regarding militancy and low literacy rate especially in FATA,govt attention in this regard is the need of the day to be given ,so that to resolve the worse existing problems in effective way,ultimately the problems would be eliminated thoroughly from gross root level.and also govt should prefer to let give peace a chance in the trouble region,,hope for the best perpetually..

saadat ali shah | 04 October 2012