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Can Pakistan Reform? By: Robert T. McLean
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 05, 2006

For months, Pakistani President Musharraf has been locked in a fierce political struggle with leaders of Pakistan’s religious schools, or madrasas. Represented by the powerful political organization Wifaqul-Madaris, the madrasa leaders have promised to ignore or resist Musharraf’s recent efforts aimed at expelling foreign students from the nation’s thousands of religious schools.

This battle is far from an inconsequential political struggle in some far off land. Critical to America’s long-term efforts in combating Islamic extremism will be our ability to promote gradual reform in Muslim countries that maintain friendly relationships with the United States. In assisting states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan in developing democratic and prosperous societies, obstacles will inevitably arise. Nowhere is the extent of this challenge more evident than in Pakistan, thanks in large part to their counterproductive education system.


Education in Pakistan has preformed abysmally ever since the country’s inception, further deteriorating after Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Huq’s implementation of programs which emphasized Islam over secular instruction in the early 1980’s. From 1947, the year of Pakistan’s independence, to 2003 the percent of the literate population grew by only 19% (16% to 35%). India by comparison increased its literacy rate in the same period of time by 47% (18% to 65%). These numbers help explain the current disparity in the prosperity levels of a burgeoning India and stagnant Pakistan.


As stated by Husain Haqqani, an expert on South Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Pakistan’s “low literacy rate and inadequate investment in education has led to a decline in Pakistan’s technological base, which in turn hampers the country’s economic modernization.” Thus, as in many other failing states, there is a clear correlation between the quality of education and the performance of a national economy.


Pakistan received the lowest “education index” of any non-African country in the 2004 Human Development Report, released by the U.N. Development Program. The reasons for this result are twofold. First, Pakistan welcomed the proliferation of madrasas during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which siphoned investment away from modern educational institutions. Second, as noted by Ashley J. Tellis in The Washington Quarterly; “The government’s neglect of human investments such as public education … has resulted in low levels of social welfare, but more problematically has created opportunities for Islamist institutions to fill the gap.”


Currently, one to two million children are educated in the more than 10,000 madrasas operating in Pakistan. Reports have indicated that about 10% of these religious schools have links to Islamic militants. Thus, 100,000 - 200,000 students are currently educated in madrasas with ties to militant groups, making Pakistan a virtual factory for producing Islamic extremists.


The Congressional Research Service reports that much of the financing for these Islamic schools comes from Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) – which maintains ties to the Taliban – and Saudi Arabia. To make matters worse, Fazlur Rehman, the chief of the JUI, has become the leader of the main opposition party in the Pakistani Parliament. Rounding out this web of extremism is the recent appointee to education minister – Javed Ashraf Qazi. Qazi is a retired general who headed the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) when it played a key role in bringing the Taliban to power by supplying them with training, weapons, and students from Pakistan’s madrasas. He has also stated on record that “The Jews are the worst terrorists in the world.”


Although the United States pledged over $100 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) towards improving Pakistan’s education system, the crucial involvement of the aforementioned figures makes the short-term reform prospects grim for President Pervez Musharraf, whose own dedication towards real reform is questionable. It was recently revealed in the Pakistani press that a deal has been struck between the Musharraf government and the fundamentalists on the issue of regulating madrasas. It now appears that financial reports will have to be submitted annually, but the sources of their finances will not have to be provided.


Unfortunately, as bad as the madrasa situation is, it is not the only educational problem in Pakistan. The public school system has also suffered due to a strong influence of extremist ideals. Fundamentalists, through the Islamic Ideology Council, have wielded considerable influence over Pakistani education, especially in the selection of textbooks. To offer a sample of the general persuasions of the Islamic Ideology Council, one must look no further than the Pakistani daily, Islamabad Khabrain. Its pages celebrated that; “The Islamic Ideology Council has said that the imposition of a ban on jihadi activities is synonymous to preventing the Muslims from performing a religious obligation.” Thus, it is no surprise that students are taught disdain for the West, the importance of jihad, and the ideal of resurrecting the Caliphate.


Pakistan’s madrasas and public education system surely are the driving variable in the propagation of radical views amongst Pakistanis. In a 2004 study by the Pew Research Center, only 3% of Pakistanis viewed Jews at least “somewhat favorably,” while 80% held an “unfavorable view.” Negative views (62%) were also prevalent in regards to Christians. The same 2004 survey found that for every one person that opposes bin Laden there was more than seven that support him. A 2005 survey found that the school teachings of an Islamic identity – as opposed to national – have been persuasive. More than 11 people to one consider themselves a “Muslim first” as opposed to a “national citizen first” (79% to 7%).


Pakistani Universities also find themselves in dire straits. This has been the case since the November 1981 crackdown on university professors, who had been caught with pamphlets promoting democracy and criticisms of the imposition of martial law. The crackdown was ordered on television by General Zia-ul-Haq.


Pervez Hoodbhoy, who taught physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, has provided some valuable insight into Pakistan’s universities. He states that although QAU is considered Pakistan’s best university (of about 100), and is considered to have the country’s best physics program, “the average PhD student has trouble with high-school level physics.” In another piece, Hoodbhoy noted that his “university has three mosques but no bookstore. It is becoming more like a madrasa in other ways too.”


Despite the massive influx in funding following the September 11 attacks, the government’s Higher Education Commission has failed to set in place real reforms. Over the last three years the budget for Pakistan’s higher education system increased by a factor of twelve, yet much of this money goes to frivolous research grants such as one that was titled “Quranization of Science Courses at the M.S. Level.”


Hoodbhoy states: “Most students have not learned how to think; they cannot speak or write any language well, rarely read newspapers, and cannot formulate a coherent argument or manage any significant creative expression.” He further observes that within the student body at Pakistani Universities “there are many burqas and beards, but miniscule intellectual or creative activity.” These searing indictments of Pakistan’s higher education system clearly reflect the congruence between education and fundamentalist Islam in Pakistan’s universities, as well as the incompatibility of fundamentalist teachings and modern education.


Without the qualified students coming from the public schools, higher education is inherently weak. The professors in the universities contribute to the problem by their poor qualifications and the cycle continues because most of the teachers needed to teach Pakistani students come from the same weak education system themselves.


Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has professed his desire to improve the country’s modern science education. However, the quick solution of increasing the number of Ph.D. graduates from 50 to 1,000 a year is an impractical solution that will only work to lower the standards of Ph.D.s. The students are not yet qualified for such an increase and the program instructors do not yet have the adequate training. The only short term solution is to bring in teachers from other countries. However, once again the problem lies in Islamic fundamentalism. The strong Islamist culture and the threat of Islamic militant violence keeps many of the qualified teachers out of Pakistan. 

It is essential that the United States achieves some degree of success in reforming Pakistan, and there is no better place to start than the education system. The current state of education in Pakistan has been the single greatest contributor to the failing economy and a culture that is in desperate need of change. Until Pakistan solves its Islamist problem, its education – and therefore its economy – will continue to suffer. Without those essential ingredients, democracy and prosperity seem a distant prospect.

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Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.

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