Sunday, March 28, 2010

Extremism and the complex education landscape of Pakistan

Much of the battle for Pakistan will be fought over the direction of the rising youth population of Pakistan. To make things worse, the education system has been a mess for quite some time. There is the Cambridge system for the elites, english-medium education for urban population and/or the middle class, urdu medium for the lower-middle class, and madrassas for the rest. The future prospects for a successful career strongly align in this particular descending order. The madrassas have gained a lot of attention in past decade or so for their possible role in radicalizing Pakistani youth and in providing recruits for suicide bombings. But the picture is more complex - and we need an effort to systematically understand the dynamics (please see an earlier post Madrassas vs private schools in Pakistan).

So here is an article in today's Washington Post that talks about a reform school near the Swat Valley in Pakistan, that is trying to provide education to those young students who were earlier under the Taliban. This is a small effort, but it goes to the heart of the problem:

At a new school tucked near the fragile peace of the Swat Valley, peach-fuzzed veterans of Taliban camps wear burgundy sweaters to math classes, counseling sessions and religion lessons, where they hear that Islam favors democracy over suicide. Teachers work in fear of militant attacks and of hardened students -- but also in hopes of de-radicalizing the gangly boys who make up a growing part of Pakistan's insurgency.

Analysts say there is an urgent need. Pakistan is home to the toxic mix of a significant youth population, few job prospects and a rising Islamist insurgency. Military officials say most suicide bombings are now carried out by males younger than 20. The 86 adolescents at this army-sponsored school are a drop in that ocean, a fact that its director, neuropsychologist Feriha Peracha, said she tries not to dwell on.

"It can have a ripple effect," Peracha said, as her students, ages 12 to 18, quietly took exams. "We are a time bomb if we don't do this."

Though child soldiers have toted guns in conflicts worldwide, international experts say their indoctrination and reform has been poorly researched. Organizers of this boarding school -- the first of its kind in Pakistan -- say it is providing a valuable, if small, window into the backgrounds of Pakistan's young fighters and the triggers that vault them into the hands of militants.

All of the students came to the school after being captured by the army, or were brought here by their families. Some had been trained by insurgent groups as slaves or thieves, some as bombers.

What is interesting about these students is the fact that they are not motivated by ideology nor were they brainwashed in any madrassas. Rather, many of them are just like troubled kids elsewhere in the world, and the Taliban (or whatever group wants to use them) find them and exploit them for their own purposes. They don't even know much about Islam or even about Pakistan:

More significantly, she and other teachers said, most of the boys are middle children who have been lost in the shuffle of large, poor families with absent fathers. Few had much formal schooling, many are aggressive, and most score poorly on educational aptitude tests.

In that regard, Peracha said they seem more like the juvenile delinquents she has counseled in Pakistan and Britain than religious zealots -- an observation that points to Pakistan's even more deeply entrenched problems of dismal schooling and profound poverty.

"The civil society and the rest of Pakistan, we didn't really react until it nearly hit Islamabad," Peracha said of the militant movement that last year seized territory located within 60 miles of the capital. "And we still aren't reacting [in] the education system, which is frozen in time."

That has created a vacuum that militants are increasingly exploiting. In lawless South Waziristan, poor boys attended an insurgent school painted with murals of the paradise awaiting martyrs, said Brig. Syed Azmat Ali, a military spokesman. In Swat, where the main Taliban leader rose to prominence through radio sermonizing, children were ill-equipped to challenge the notion that Pakistani troops were infidels who deserved death.

"They knew extremely little about the world or about Islam," said Mohammed Farooq, a Swat University vice chancellor and religious scholar in charge of Islamic education at the school for former militants. "They had just a superficial knowledge that we are Muslims and we have to fight America and their stooges."

He and Peracha said they believe the program, which combines tough love and discipline with a standard curriculum and regular counseling, is working. To assess the boys' risk levels, Peracha performs standardized neuropsychology tests and gently pries out their stories over several meetings.

Read the full article here. Pakistan needs a massive education reform. There are some fantastic individuals who have started up schools in some of the poorest parts of the country (for example read about Mortenson's schools here), but there has to be a bigger and more coordinated effort informed by research about the undercurrents madrassas and public school system. It is not going to be easy - but this may be essential for the future stability of Pakistan.

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