The Pakistani curriculum and extremism

Published: May 17, 2016
The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She tweets @MadihaAfzal

The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She tweets @MadihaAfzal

A selective, one-sided version of history; distortions, half-truths and biases; an ideological narrative designed to impose the state’s version of identity. Yes, these are all problems with Pakistan’s history textbooks, but not Pakistan’s books alone.

Countries around the world use curricula to impart ideology and inculcate nationalism. Scholarly research has documented issues such as the ones I mentioned above in history textbooks in India, Bangladesh, China, Japan, Israel and America — and more.

In my research, I have drawn a link between the problems with the Pakistani curriculum and the country’s current struggle with extremism. Yet extremism is not a major issue for the other countries I mentioned above.

Is it disingenuous, then, to link the curriculum with extremism in Pakistan when the connection does not seem to hold for these other countries? Does the key lie in the sheer quantity of distortions and biases in Pakistani textbooks relative to these others? Or are factors other than curricula more important?

The answer, in my view, lies in a few particularities in the Pakistani curriculum, and in the country itself.

First, Pakistani textbooks glorify armed jihad. They extol warfare that occurred pre-Partition against (armies of) other religions, and they glorify these wars in the name of religion. Pakistan is not alone in having fought wars, but it is one of very few countries (Israel is another that comes to mind) that invoke religion in war. In Pakistan Studies textbooks, the wars with India post-Partition are labelled as jihad.

Once you give armed conflict the cloak of religion — for the military as well as freedom fighters in colonial times — the next thing you know, violence in the name of religion becomes justifiable in the hands of modern-day militant groups as well.

Second, there is no critical thinking, questioning and reasoning to speak of in Pakistani government schools. How, then, can Pakistanis counter questionable narratives thrown at them? Pakistan is not alone in this — a lack of critical thinking is endemic to many Asian countries as well as other South Asian nations. But few other countries have the narratives of hate, victimhood, paranoia and conspiracy that float around in Pakistan.

These narratives are spouted by politicians, religio-political groups, the media, the neighbourhood mullah and by militant groups. The propaganda of militant groups — out there, unregulated — is doubly dangerous in the hands of an unthinking and gullible population. Worse, the narratives of some mainstream politicians, especially those belonging to religious parties, do not lie far from the narratives of militant groups, lending the latter further acceptability.

Third, Pakistan has no rule of law to speak of. Militants remain largely unprosecuted, except through non-transparent military courts. Pakistan’s policing infrastructure remains poor, as does its legal system. Unless extremists are held accountable in a transparent manner for their actions, they will persist.

Fourth, Pakistan has poor governance, no question, but Pakistanis have an almost unparalleled sense of grievance over their country’s poor governance. To understand how grievances, even unjustified, can lead to extremism, you need look no further than the current American election campaign and Donald Trump’s supporters, extremists of a different kind. They think the current American political system has done them grievous wrong, and this has driven them into the arms of an anti-establishment know-nothing.

In Pakistan, when charitable wings of militant groups fill the space left void by the government, and when militant groups dispense judgments — albeit harsh and regressive — where there is no legal system to speak of, allegiances and sympathies can shift away from the distrusted state to the only available alternative.

Fifth, the abysmally low levels of education in Pakistan, combined with the sheer number of problems in the curriculum, play a role. Pakistan has poorer educational attainment than each of the countries I have mentioned above. Levels of education matter: in my discussions with university students in Lahore, they told me that the broader view of history they saw in university beyond their government secondary schools changed and broadened their thinking. Studying European history, American politics and more helped reverse many of their earlier problematic conceptions. Pakistan’s textbooks are not alone in the world in being ideologically driven and chock-full of distortions. But in the myriad problems in Pakistan’s cauldron of extremism, its education system plays a significant role.

Thinking citizens and those with higher education are more likely to counter the propaganda all too readily accessible in the country (even that written in their high school textbooks). But other factors — governance and the rule of law — also matter, and we would ignore them at our peril.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Parvez
    May 17, 2016 - 11:54PM

    Excellent article……..but I doubt those who should read things like this, will.
    This has been said before but needs to be said again….our children are taught what to think and not how to think and our text books are designed on this principle. The problem that arises is when those designing our text books themselves neither know what to think nor sadly how to think. It’s not surprising that our level of education today is abysmally low. Recommend

  • Pakistani
    May 18, 2016 - 7:49AM

    There are weaknesses in curriculum but it’s not fair to malign the country based on one’s perspective that historical explanations are totally wrong. Experts and scholars emanating from elite educational institutions try to impose their will on others without realizing the actual weaknesses in education system intended to serve the poor. The real issue is poor’s deprivation from educational opportunities and if one succeeds to get education, it becomes difficult to get decent jobs. Extremism has roots in international proxy wars, not the curriculum. Even US being a market economy, invests and promotes public schools instead of proliferation of private schools. We need to learn this policy and practice from US. Moreover, all societies tell heroic stories of ancestors and military leaders, its not unique in Pakistan. Do European countries teach their colonial/attractive practices to their kids? Recommend

  • Sandeep
    May 18, 2016 - 8:51AM

    Nice Article..
    As stated “Education” alone can bring prosperity to the South Asian region.
    However a pro-active approach from Govt for development of Employment facilities is also the need of the hour.

    May 18, 2016 - 10:48AM

    …India distorted curriculum?……quite funny..Recommend

  • Menon
    May 18, 2016 - 3:25PM

    Kudos to the author on an excellent article.

    Brain washing through edcation is problem every wehere. In America, it is America number one and massive distortions by not teaching and accepting its faults.

    The only country, I am aware of accepting its mistakes is Japan on its participation in WWII and swearing off nuclear weapons.

    Politicians and religious leaders (bar none) stay in power by promoting division, mutual hate, poverty and illiteracy. If they, didn’t, people will start asking questions and hold them accountable. Who wants that?Recommend

  • Tatvavetta
    May 18, 2016 - 6:56PM

    @ Pakistani
    Author tries to analyse the reasons of violence and extremism in Pakistan against other Islamic countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan,Turkmenistan,UAE, Egypt,
    Saudi Arabia. Obviously, extremism and violence initiated in Pakistan is exceptionally high.
    Authur has brought out very correct reasons that need to be corrected Recommend

  • HZR
    May 18, 2016 - 10:09PM

    Darwinian evolution is questioned in many schools even in this age of science!Recommend

  • observer
    May 19, 2016 - 1:18PM


    Darwinian evolution is questioned in many schools even in this age of science!

    Do you mean Schools teaching Theology?

    For, I don’t see one major University, teaching science, questioning Evolution.

    Can you name one?Recommend

  • Fahad
    May 20, 2016 - 2:20AM

    Nice article. It could have been much better if you did some more research on the concept of Jihad in the context of Muslim majority or Islamic countries. It would be more better if we correct our understanding in order to solve our problems and act on the correct understanding, rather than just removing anything (like Jihad in context of Pakistan army) seems rebellious. This is a dilemma of present time that we find it so easy to declare religious beliefs the problem of all causes that cultivated in our society throughout last 69 years or so.Recommend

  • Wajahat
    May 23, 2016 - 3:00PM

    I think the cause for terrorism has been incorrectly identified here. The main cadres of terrorists have not come from the mainstream education system. Blaming religion for all Ills in the society ins the easiest and most fashionable these days. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Our problems start when we try to secularise the mainstream education system, leaving religion to the Medrassahs; and the two stream being incompatible, collide to create a social mess. Even if the mainstream curriculum seems to be disproportionately favouring jihad, the problem does not lie there. The problem lies in not presenting the other side of the picture. The humane side of Islam, the Islamic emphasis on social justice, and egalitarianism, the safeguarding of the rights of the underprivileged, all these need to be taught to balance the understanding. Armed conflict is a fact of life and is proven to be the most permanent historical phenomenon. We need to give a balanced education, not pacifist education, even if its basis lies in theology. After all it is the Islamic republic, not a secular country. Recommend

  • May 30, 2016 - 8:13AM

    that’s no problem extremly curriculum? oh, is one of differences another countriesRecommend

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