Pakistan has seen decades of sectarian violence that riddled the fabric of our society after the Iranian revolution. Our streets have seen bloodbath, killings and suicide bombings in recent decades.

Interreligious and sectarian harmony has touched new lows, and sectarian divides have widened over the years. Minorities are feeling ever more unsafe and an end to their sense of alienation is nowhere in sight. The power of religious extremists has grown over the years and our schools curricula are rife with unbalanced indoctrination and university campuses have been taken hostage by extremist organizations. Space for difference of opinion and expressing one’s individuality has remarkably shrunk.  Divisions, estrangement, distrust and suspicions have taken hold of inter communal relations and interactions.

Extremist attitudes and reactionary mindsets are the product of fundamentalist interpretations of religion; these interpretations glorify past and abhor anything modern or western. The fundamentalist interpretations cultivate a deep distrust, fear and revulsion for modern values and culture. The fundamentalist interpreters of Islam are deeply suspicious of modern political and cultural institutions and ideas like nation states, democracy, human rights, civil liberties, banking system, music and films. Religious extremism has many facets or aspects in our country, some advocate annihilation of an entire minority; some others call for enforcement of Sharia law upon the whole nation without regard to multiplicity of sects and religions and there are many others who call for replacing democracy with caliphate. Massacres, murders, revolts and riots have been carried out and so many other horrendous crimes have been committed in the name of religion in our country.

The sad part of this tragic saga is that despite so many sufferings and losses, we are lacking in the ability and preparedness to reject extremist ideologies through critical resistance. We have done too little to save the susceptible minds of our youth from extremist indoctrination. Education is the best weapon available in our arsenal to defang and defeat such ideologies but the problem lies in our commitment and capacity to use it. We have to use the right medicine at the right moment and at the right spot to treat this cancer of religious fanaticism. The good news is the antidote to this venom is not unknown; history is full of examples of nations uprooting deep-seated prejudices and ignorance. Nations have defeated and expunged evils like slavery, racism, casteism, apartheid, Nazism and many more; Pakistan can do the same in doing away with the scourge of extremism and religious fanaticism. The key to the remedy, emancipation and success lies in education, the right type of education with the right intent and off course right content.

There are some very fundamental steps that need to be taken to reform our education system in a way that it becomes instrumental in producing rational, thinking, responsible and moral human beings. Here is the list of eight imperatives for our educational policy planners to sincerely consider:

Emphasis on the ideals of democracy and human rights in national curriculum:

Democracy may not be the perfect form of government but it is the best form of management of collective affairs yet conceived by humans, our children must be educated to appreciate this fact. Universality of human rights is an equally important notion that must be a part of Pakistani young peoples’ worldview. Our education system must enable and guide students to compare and contrast democratic form of government with other forms of government to discover and value the merits of democracy. Educating Pakistani children about democratic values, fundamental human rights and civil liberties will equip them with the critical ability to deconstruct extremist propaganda. It is equally important to provide democratic environment in schools to instill democratic behaviors.

Allowing greater room for individuality, personal freedom and creativity for young citizens in educational institutions:

Educational institutions need to be democratized, corporal punishments and any degrading treatment must be banned and students’ human rights in class rooms must be protected. Our children must learn to be independent, confident and self-motivated in schools, they must be prepared to lead a happy, useful and purposeful life. Having greater independence to make their own decisions and choices will make our children more driven, self-secure, and critically conscious. This will make it difficult for any preacher of hate to mislead them, and to brainwash them into believing in any unearthly anarchism.

Inculcation of rational and scientific behavior in students:

In other words critical thinking is the ability that is of central importance in making a person truly educated. Critical thinking ability will allow a person to make rational decisions, it will endow him with the capacity to do necessary fact checking before being lead to believe in something or act in a certain way.

Enabling students to study history with an unbiased and critical approach:

Our children are taught the biased and in some cases false history, they are made to read one-sided narratives and this is a tragic truth of our education system. Our education system has been accused of practicing historical revisionism and incorporating prescribed myths in the national curriculum. Historical inaccuracies that our student are required to study about, make them susceptible to extremist narratives aimed at creating a kind of siege mentality. Our students must have the opportunities to study unbiased history free from the zealous myths of supposed past glories. They must be allowed to critically analyze historical narratives and they must be enabled to critically compare modern day institutions and democratic values with those of medieval times i.e. institutions of hereditary despotism, dynastic wars of succession and slavery.   

Introducing students to diversity, enabling them to appreciate it:

Pakistan is a diverse nation both ethnically and religiously. Our youth must be educated about diversity, they must be conscious of the differences, they must be aware of the existence of the whole spectrum of Pakistan’s ethnic, sectarian and religious groups. Education provided to Pakistani children must enable them to appreciate the existence of religious, cultural and even sexual minorities. Consciousness to diversity is crucial in debunking the myths of a monotonous whole propagated by religious extremists.

Making our education inclusive and comprehensive:

A comprehensive and inclusive education with proper space for sports, extra-curricular and cultural activities can be a significant provision in countering currents of extremists thought. Inclusive education will allow students belonging to diverse strata of society to be educated and be provided with equal opportunities. Sports, music, fine arts and many more disciplines will have to be added to our curriculum to make it more capable of meeting multifarious educational needs of students.

Introducing students to modern global culture:

In a global village we cannot live isolated lives living in our lonely island of outdated traditions, prejudices and insecurities. There so much to gain from enhanced connectedness with the world. Knowledge of the world’s traditions, values and culture can be very rewarding in the direction of creating an open society. Extremists attitudes can’t survive in an open environment instead they thrive in isolated and curtailed spaces.

Streamlining religious education to make it more conformable to modern democratic values: Religious education needs to be streamlined not only in content but in process as well. Corporal punishment in religious seminaries will have to be banned; modern subjects will have to be introduced.  State run schools can take the lead in providing religious education in state run schools as well as in providing technical and financial assistance to religious seminaries thus gaining greater leverage our  their decision making. Curricula taught in madrassas will have to be monitored to keep a check on content that can potentially foment sectarian and religious discord.