Extremism and intolerance in Pakistan begin in the classroom

WASHINGTON—Pakistani children learn to hate non-Muslims from the first day of school, according to a new report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

“Education can encourage tolerance and respect for all, but it can also foster distain and contempt,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, USCIRF commissioner. “[Pakistani textbooks] contain a host of examples of outright bias and even bigotry.”

In 2011, USCIRF commissioned research on public school textbooks in Pakistan and found a litany of misrepresentations, errors, and negative stereotypes of non-Muslims. On Tuesday, USCIRF released a follow-up report, finding 70 new examples of bias and a glorification of war and violence that promotes a national Islamic identity at the expense of Christians and other minorities.

Pakistan-based Peace and Education Foundation (PEF) conducted both the original and follow-up studies. PEF analyzed 78 different textbooks used in Pakistani public schools to determine what children learn about other religions and non-Muslim Pakistani citizens.

The group found many textbooks mixed facts and conspiracies about non-Muslims, portraying Hindus and Christians as partners in an attempt to destroy Islam. And often curriculum depicted minorities as untrustworthy and inferior.

“The textbooks constantly promote divineness and tell students they can’t really coexist with others,” said Azhar Hussain, PEF’s president and founder.

One passage from a 10th grade textbook reads: “The Islamic religion, culture, and social system are different from non-Muslims; therefore, it is impossible for the them to cooperate with Hindus.”

Islam is everywhere in Pakistani culture. Its blasphemy laws are the most stringent in the world, punishable by death, and 96 percent of Pakistani citizens are Muslim. That creates a culture of governmental policies beholden to Islamic teachings and sometimes extremist ideology.

Michael Kugelman, who studies Pakistani culture for the Woodrow Wilson Center, said the textbooks are just one example of an Islamic-entrenched society.

“There are so many powerful constituencies in Pakistan that see nothing wrong with this,” Kugelman said. “It’s easy to kill terrorists, but it’s much harder to kill the ideology that sustains them.”

One-third of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 15 and more than 60 percent are 24 years old or younger. With 69 percent of children in public schools, the textbooks reach more than 41 million in the country. And for those not part of the public school system, popular media, community leaders, and even the government all reinforce negative stereotypes of non-Muslims. Kugelman said all of these factors make it an uphill battle to combat radical ideologies.

During the past five years, USCIRF made recommendations for how to change the textbooks and held meetings with Pakistani government officials to explain them. But Swett said the new report shows Pakistan needs greater efforts to change harmful rhetoric and protect religious minorities in the region.

Christians make up about 2 percent of the population in Pakistan and often are the target of attacks from extremist groups.

On Easter Sunday, Christian families gathered at a park in Lahore to relax and fellowship after church services. The Taliban faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar deployed suicide bombers, killing more than 70 and wounding hundreds.

Farahnaz Ispahani, an author and former member of Pakistan’s parliament, said the attack in Lahore stems from the engrained Muslim culture in which extremists continue to foster hate toward minorities.

“Do I have a problem with Islam and Muslims? No,” she said. “I have a problem with there not being a separation of church and state. Because people not of the dominate religion will never be equal citizens.”

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