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Pakistan: Do school texts fuel bias?

The curriculum, critics charge, promotes revisionist views and intolerance. Others say they don't see such imbalance.

By Issam AhmedContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 2009

Point of View: These 2008 texts, used in Pakistan's Punjab Province but approved nationally, omit references to minority festivals and contain anti-Indian references.

Issam Ahmed

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Lahore, Pakistan

As Pakistani Air Force jets circled the eastern border city of Lahore last week in a show of strength, journalist Rab Nawaz was despondent. But what occupied him was less the threat of war with India than the things his son had begun saying recently.

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"My 7-year-old came home from school one day insisting that Indians are our natural-born enemies, that Muslims are good, and Hindus are evil," the widely traveled journalist recalls. "He asked about the relative strength of our air forces and insisted we would win if it came to war.

"It was only when I asked him whether my Indian friends ... were also bad," he adds, "that he began to realize that things weren't quite so simple."

Public schools, though long neglected, are still responsible for educating the vast majority of schoolchildren. Some 57 percent of boys and 44 percent of girls enroll in primary school, and about 46 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls reach high school.

All public schools must follow the government curriculum – one that critics say is inadequate at best, harmful at worst.

According to Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, the "Islamizing" of Pakistan's schools began in 1976 under the rule of the former dictator, the general Zia ul-Haq.

An act of parliament that year required all government and private schools (except those teaching the British O-levels from Grade 9) to follow a curriculum that includes learning outcomes for the federally approved Grade 5 social studies class such as: "Acknowledge and identify forces that may be working against Pakistan," "Make speeches on Jihad," "Collect pictures of policemen, soldiers, and national guards," and "India's evil designs against Pakistan."

"It sounds like the blueprint for a religious fascist state," says Professor Hoodbhoy. "You have a country where generations have grown up believing they are surrounded on all sides by enemies, they are the only righteous ones, and the world is out to get them."

It is this siege mentality that led to some of the head-in-the-sand reactions by the Pakistani media and public in the aftermath of Mumbai, he suggests.

"There was a flat denial that it could be Pakistanis," he says. "Anyone suggesting the contrary was labeled an enemy of the state or unpatriotic. When I said on television there are groups in this country dedicated to harming India – the furor ... was quite astonishing."

Amanullah Kariapper, a young software engineer and cofounder of Young Professionals of Lahore, an informal alliance dedicated to human rights causes, agrees.

Mr. Kariapper says he began revising his world views when he went to college, first at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and later in Grenoble, France. The process came full circle when he was briefly arrested in November 2007 for protesting former President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency and suspension of civil rights.

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