On December 16, the 145 victims of the Army Public School attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, bore the burden of their nation’s failures and paid for them with their lives. The survivors that day witnessed the unthinkable, and lost their childhoods. I went to school in Pakistan too, but it was a different country, one where children could still be children. Yet the seeds of today’s Pakistan had already been sown by the time I was in elementary school. This was the end of General Zia’s time—a man who ruthlessly Islamized the country beyond recognition, changing laws and curricula, restricting freedoms, and transforming society.
After the horror in Peshawar, we have seen Pakistanis unite, at least for now—against the Taliban (TTP), who took responsibility for the attack in Peshawar, and who have killed tens of thousands of their fellow citizens over the last decade. The country is also united against Taliban apologists, such as the radical cleric Abdul Aziz of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, who refused to condemn the TTP until forced by days of protest to do so. But until Peshawar, Pakistan’s media, its leaders, and ordinary citizens shied away from naming terrorists and terrorist groups, refused to acknowledge their identity, and instead pointed fingers at the U.S. and India for creating havoc in the country. This obfuscation and denial has allowed militants to garner sympathy, to survive, and to operate freely.
For the last year and a half, with support from a U.S. Institute of Peace research grant, I have visited public and private schools following the official curriculum in Pakistan, attending classes and talking with high school students and teachers. I asked students about what they thought was causing terrorism in Pakistan. The majority of them said that “foreign influences”—the United States and India, and sometimes Israel—were responsible. Some of these students gave a straight up conspiracy theory version of this argument, that these countries wanted to destroy Pakistan, and so they trained or funded or even sent terrorists into Pakistan. They said that it was impossible that Muslims could be responsible for killing other Muslims. Others argued that terrorists engaged in attacks in retaliation for Pakistan having helped the U.S. in “America’s war”—in Afghanistan—or that they undertook terrorist attacks in response to U.S. drone strikes and involvement in Pakistan.
A smaller set of students argued that the terrorists want to implement Islam in Pakistan, that the country is on the wrong, un-Islamic path now—thus giving a religion-based justification for militant behavior.
These aren’t madrassa students. I visited public and private schools, the kind that reach a majority of Pakistan’s population. This isn’t down to illiteracy either—these students are in high school. What drives them to think this way? It is easy to blame Pakistan’s media, because it often spouts these same conspiracy theories. But the blame rests with Pakistan’s curriculum, society, and state. And, yes, the media.
For the last 35 years, Pakistan’s official curriculum has been an amalgam of religious dogma, historical half-truths, blatant lies, biases, and conspiracy theories. The official textbooks teach children that Pakistan’s “ideology” is Islam; that its foreign policy is ideological—its guiding principle is friendship with the Muslim world; that various other religions and nations are “evil” and “the enemy”—especially India and the Hindus, but these words are also used for Jewish people and Israel. A number of these textbooks glorify armed jihad, or struggle, against non-Muslims. The textbooks depict major historical events as the results of conspiracies—of Hindus and the British against Muslims in colonial India, rendering Pakistan’s independence necessary; and of the “secret arrangement of big powers” that led to the breaking up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. The West is described as having “two-faced” characters, and the United States is portrayed as having betrayed Pakistan at key points in its history.
Teaching revolves around rote memorization—line by line, page by page—and the sole purpose of classes is to ensure rote learning for board exams, where the material is expected to be regurgitated verbatim. There is no room for questioning the textbooks, no discussion in class, no mention of good versus bad sources of information, no alternate views presented. It’s all black and white: Muslims and Pakistan are “good” and the rest of the world is not, and they are out to get us. Little wonder, then, that Pakistanis find it tough to believe the Taliban come from among them and are Muslims.
But for the origin of the specific conspiracy theories about the Taliban, we need look no further than elements of the Pakistani state and radical clerics. They function as “conspiracy entrepreneurs”—a paper by Sunstein and Vermeule sets up a useful framework for thinking about this—who use these theories to divert attention from their internal failings and pin blame elsewhere. Pointing the finger at India gives sustenance to Pakistan’s military, whose power depends on the conflict with India.
Pakistanis rely on the opinions of those in positions of authority to form their own—partly because of the country’s hierarchical society and culture, and partly because they are never taught how to seek and evaluate evidence in school—leading to these theories being accepted and then spreading quickly in “informational cascades”.
The outrage sparked by Peshawar has finally seen the government take an aggressive stance against the Taliban, with a force that has been lacking before. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has announced that military courts will be set up to deal with terrorism cases. There is finally some talk about reclaiming the narrative from Taliban apologists—Pakistan’s interior minister Chaudhry Nisar asked the media not to give airtime to Taliban sympathizers—and the need for madrassa reform. But we have heard nothing about the need for curriculum reform in eliminating the roots of our national sense of denial and sympathy for militants.
That is unsurprising. In part, this is because a decentralization law passed in 2010 saw the federal government delegate curriculum formation to the provinces. In fact, in one province, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, marginal curriculum improvements made over the past few years are currently being reversed under pressure from Islamist parties in the province, and the word jihad is being reintroduced in their textbooks. In part, it’s because the government just doesn’t get the need for such reform. We have an entire generation of policymakers schooled in this system who don’t realize there’s anything wrong with it, and who systematically push back against reform.
But despite the impediments, curriculum reform is urgent. With critical thinking capabilities and a reformed curriculum, when faced with conspiracy entrepreneurs like the terrorist Hafiz Saeed, who has blamed the Peshawar attacks on India, the Pakistani public would be equipped to counter their theories.
So it is time for Pakistan to rewrite its textbooks to give its citizens a real, complete picture of history—no conspiracies attached; to purge religious dogma and hatred toward others; to introduce critical thinking in the curriculum; and to encourage global citizenship. This won’t be easy. Islamic parties will protest, but the government must ignore them. Teachers will need to be reeducated and retrained, and the results will be visible only in the long term. But that is the only way to achieve a Pakistan for the next generation that is even safer than the one where I went to school.