WSJ: Pakistan's Broad Education Ills; Public Schools May Stir Up More Extremism Than Madrassas

Wall Street Journal
Pakistan's Broad Education Ills; Public Schools May Stir Up More Extremism Than Madrassas
Steve LeVine and Zahid Hussain. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Aug 19, 2005. pg. A.11

Islamabad, Pakistan -- PAKISTAN AND THE WEST have targeted this country's Islamic seminaries for a major overhaul, identifying them as primary sources of militancy and terror. But some critics say the country's abysmal public-education system also enables extremist thought to flourish in the nation and that too little is being done to remedy the situation.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, recently launched a fresh crackdown on the madrassas, as the seminaries are known, where many of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban leaders and their followers were educated. He faces renewed Western pressure to confront militancy within the country's borders since the July 7 London bombings, which were carried out principally by young men of Pakistani descent who spent significant time in this country in recent years.

In response, Gen. Musharraf ordered the deportation of some 1,400 foreign madrassa students and vowed to add science, math and other academic subjects to the schools' almost wholly religious curricula, which he said has contributed to a "jihadi culture" in Pakistan.

But many authorities on Pakistani education say government-run schools are a more pernicious contributor to the spread of such thought. While madrassas teach an estimated 1.7 million students, public-school enrollment is some 25 million students, according to government statistics. And the public schools' failure to offer a rigorous, secular alternative to religious extremism, as well as their own biased and inflammatory teachings, make the population fertile ground for Islamist recruiters.

The government-school curriculum was revised in the 1970s and 1980s as part of an injection of Islam into public policy by military dictator Zia ul-Haq. Gen. Zia ordered textbook revisions, from primary through high school, that critics say misinterpreted history, encouraged antipathy toward India's Hindus and extolled jihad, or holy war, as a response to perceived slights to the Muslim religion.

Gen. Musharraf recently ordered a reversal of some of Gen. Zia's curriculum, and the results are apparent in new grade-school textbooks, which are supplied free to students. But critics cite remaining problems, particularly regarding largely Hindu India, Pakistan's bitter rival.

For example, a fifth-grade Punjab provincial textbook called "Social Studies Class 5," published in September 2004, plays down the violence of the eighth-century Muslim conquest of South Asia and provides a narrow description of fierce resistance to it. "The Muslims introduced Islamic culture in this region and maintained peace and order. . . . [But] the non-Muslims, especially the Hindus, did not like the Muslims as they looked upon them as usurpers," the book states.

"The root cause of this terrorism and religious extremism is this curriculum in textbooks," said Ahmad Salim, a Pakistani scholar who co-wrote a seminal 2003 study of the public-school curriculum called "The Subtle Subversion." "These texts have been in the schools for 25 years."

Specialists say the textbooks scratch the surface of an education crisis in this country of some 140 million people. About 60% of the population can't read or write, according to official figures. The average Pakistani boy receives just five years of education, and girls half that; one-third of Pakistani children never attend school at all.

Because Pakistan devotes just 2% of its gross national product to education -- among the world's lowest rates -- large areas of the country have just shells of schools, lacking furniture, books and sometimes even teachers. The condition of the schools, along with general poverty, result in a 50% dropout rate after the first three years of primary school, experts say.

Critics say the government also understates the attendance problem. Official government data, for example, put the school-age population -- 5 years to 16 years old -- at 40 million to 50 million children, but critics say that is half the actual number.

While madrassas are privately run schools, they are free to the children who attend them, which is part of their appeal -- the students are housed, fed, clothed and schooled at no cost to the family. Under Gen. Musharraf's crackdown on these seminaries, the schools now must register with the government and add more-traditional academic classes to their curricula. Public schools, although more widespread, aren't geographically available to all Pakistani children, and families still have to come up with money to support the child.

In an interview, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz defended public schools and said the amount spent on education has risen markedly as government revenue has improved in recent years. The government has projected $7.2 billion in spending over a 14-year period ending in 2015 to revamp public education. Foreign assistance has boosted the sum. The U.S., for instance, has provided a six-year, $178 million grant to build schools, train teachers and improve adult literacy, and an additional $87 million for higher education.

In order to increase attendance, some schools are paying parents the equivalent of $3.33 a month to keep girls in school. "The spending is more than it's ever been," Mr. Aziz said. "Every education indicator is pointing north."

Nasim Ashraf, a minister of state, says the government also is working on adult literacy as a key to transforming the country. He said new centers set up by the National Commission for Human Development, which he heads, already have taught 200,000 women to read. "We want to make one generation literate. Then your overall attainment levels go up," Mr. Ashraf said.

The government also has encouraged Pakistanis to "adopt" public schools in order to improve them. Three years ago, Zarene Malik and Shelale Abbasi adopted Girls School 52 in Islamabad.

The two women, who formerly ran a private school and now work as education consultants, said that, at this point, they have set modest goals for the school. Since most Pakistani girls currently drop out before high school, they said, a realistic aim isn't to try to prepare them for further education, but simply to teach an employable skill.

"We don't need a country of bachelor's degrees," Ms. Malik said. "They need to be put into trades, given entrepreneurial skills, so they can start earning."


Two Schools of Thought

Critics long have blamed Pakistan's Islamic madrassas for nurturing a
jihadi culture, but many now say the abysmal state of public schools bears
much of the blame for enabling extremist thought to flourish. Some education

-- Number of madrassas in Pakistan: 11,221, with 1.7 million students

-- Number of public schools: 187,000, with 25 million students

-- Pakistani schoolage children not attending classes: 40%

-- Drop out rate in first three years of school: 50%

Sources: Ministry of Religious Affairs; National Commission for Human


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