Written By: Salman Masood
The memory of the gruesome December 16, 2014 terror attack on Army Public School, Peshawar, will always convulse the Pakistani nation. The sheer barbarity of the attack and scale of its brutality is unparalleled; the horror unbearable. 144 people, including 122 school-going children, were mowed down mercilessly by the Taliban militants as they attempted desperately to kill the national spirit through an unprecedented bloodbath. But the Pakistani nation is resilient and its resolve is indomitable. The immediate, inevitable grief and sorrow in the aftermath of the tragedy led to a resolve by the nation, spearheaded by its military and civilian leadership, that terrorists cannot cow us down.
And, on December 16, 2015, the first anniversary of the APS tragedy, this resolve was reiterated in glowing tributes as the nation remembered the martyrs in ceremonies across the country. In emotional speeches at sombre events and candlelit vigils, the little martyrs of Peshawar were remembered with teary eyes and heavy hearts. In documentaries on the television news networks, their young lives were celebrated. The anniversary became a collective sum of remembrance and sadness, imbued with the resolve of renewal and reinvigoration.
Most strikingly, one of the most fitting tributes came from the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate, the media wing of the Pakistani military, when it released a powerful and evocative song ‘Mujhay maa us sae badla lene jana hai, Mujhay dushman k bachon ko parhana hai’ (Mother, I have to go seek revenge from him/I have to educate the enemy’s children).
The lyrics of the song eschew the natural urge of violent revenge. Instead, it is an expression of the desire of the young to ‘educate’ the children of the ‘enemy’, to help them crawl out of the darkness that has been thrust upon them by the terrorist mindset. The video of the song delivers a powerful message: education is the key that would unlock the minds of those surrounded by obscurantist and errant interpretations of religion, mired in militancy and violence.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. It was 58 per cent in 2015, a stark contrast to the 88 per cent target set by the United Nations for 2015 under its Millennium Development Goals. For a nation with so much promise and potential, such a low rate of literacy means that its population, especially the youth, cannot reach their true potential.
Education, and the knowledge it imparts, is essential for national growth and competitiveness in the world. In a globalized age of specialised scientific knowledge and advancement, education paves the way towards progress and societal advancement. An educated citizenry is a must for developing a society that can be at par with the leading developed countries of the world. Unfortunately, Pakistan is not producing enough scientists and professors, technical experts and professionals, who can add to the core of invaluable intellectual capital essential to give the country a competitive edge in an interconnected and globalised economy.
Fixing the domestic economy is an integral part of this gargantuan task and therefore unequal distribution of wealth and income disparities need to be addressed. National security is essentially a function of the economy and a robust and vibrant economy cannot be attained without excellence in education.
But it is not just the technological and scientific aspects of the education system of the country that can transform a nation. It is only one of the several parts of the bigger picture. The education system should also cultivate a citizenry that is deeply aware of the national interest and strives to preserve and enhance it without any confusion and obfuscation. As noted by some recent studies, security of a country is not just dependent on its military prowess and might. It is the human capital that determines the effectiveness of national security and this capital, in turn, is contingent upon the quality of the public school system.
Regrettably, there has been a gradual and persistent decay in the public school system of the country. Adding to the woe is the unfortunate reality that there are different mediums of instruction and often parallel or incompatible set of curricula, which result in a shambolic and confused mindset. Also, for the past several years, there has been a constant cacophony of noise by some people, who relish in questioning – and even ridiculing – the core values and traditions of the society and country. Self-loathing and insulting those who want to uphold the sense of patriotism and sense of pride in the country is a favourite refrain of this particular mindset. The growth of an unhinged social media has lent them an amplified voice as they question the very basis and existence of national interest and attempt to dilute and debase the principles underlying the state and society. Therefore, while there is a need to educate the ‘enemy’, as echoed by the song released on the APS anniversary, there is also a need to re-educate those who have been misled and swept away by such malicious propaganda. A sense of national pride needs to be inculcated in the (young) minds, spurring and inspiring them to become proud, valuable and productive citizens of the country.
This is obviously not to suggest at all that they are imparted with a slant of education that leads to xenophobia and bigotry. The need is not only to develop an enlightened citizenry, proud of its heritage and country, but which, at the same time, is equipped with the intellectual zeal and ability to communicate and compete with the global audience and regional challenges. The target should be to raise conscientious citizens who believe in the rule of law, democracy, good governance and sanctity of human life.
There is also a word of caution. Mere education would not ensure achievement of these goals. For more than a decade, the biggest challenge to the Pakistani state has been from religious radicalism and extremism. Such a mindset has found itself an easy incubation not only in the religious seminaries of the tribal regions and provincial backwaters, but it has crawled its way into the public universities and private institutions. While most of the terror attacks can be traced back to have been carried out by the illiterate and misled youth of the tribal regions, some of the most heinous and deadly attacks were planned and carried out by graduates and highly educated individuals.
Earlier this month, Punjab counterterrorism department arrested two teachers and one student of Punjab University in Lahore. Both teachers were highly qualified – one had a PhD degree from Netherlands – and yet investigators say they were active participants of the banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir. One of the main suspects in May 2015 Safoora attack – when dozens of muslims belonging to the Ismaili sect were mercilessly killed inside a commuter bus in Karachi – studied from the prestigious Institute of Business Administration. And, the arrests in the second last week of this month in Karachi led to a ring of facilitators of Safoora attack who were also highly educated, with degrees from the West. Tashfeen Malik, who along with her husband Syed Rizwan Farook, is accused to carrying out the recent San Bernardino killings in United States was also educated and a very bright student, according to her teachers and class fellows.
The complexity of the situation and the multiple root causes of militancy and religious radicalism, therefore, pose a daunting challenge for the policy-makers.
Religious radicalism poses an existential threat to the Pakistani society. It becomes imperative to mainstream the religious seminaries, wean them away from extremist and sectarian influences and deprive them of the easy availability of weapons and ammunitions. A large segment of the poor of the society cannot afford to pay even nominal fees for government schools and end up sending their children to religious seminaries. The public education system, therefore, needs to have a massive overhaul and transformation, not only in performance and delivery but also in terms of access and admissions.
Most importantly, the dichotomies and anomalies in the national discourse need to be addressed. The national narrative needs to be recaptured and redefined in consonance with the changing times and needs. The legal system would also have to be reformed for provision of quick and easy justice to ensure domestic stability. These steps would become the foundation stones for the human capital, which will determine and safeguard our national security.