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.