Last weekend, Malala Yousafzai visited Pakistan for the first time since she was shot by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) more than five years ago. That she was able to visit — albeit amid exceptionally tight security — is a testament to how much safety has improved in Pakistan. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 748 civilians and security personnel died in terrorism-related incidents in Pakistan in 2017, a drop from 3,739 such deaths in 2012.
Since the Taliban targeted Malala for her advocacy for girls’ education, she has become known globally for promoting girls’ schooling around the world, for which she won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. Last month, the Malala Fund opened a new girls’ school in her home town in the Swat valley, built with her Nobel money.
But will increasing access to education actually decrease support for the kind of extremism that led to the TTP’s attack on Malala? The answer is far from clear. Here’s why.
Education doesn’t always reduce extremism
It is true that Pakistanis with more formal education see extremist groups much more unfavorably. For example, in 2013, Pew surveyed 1,201 Pakistanis in a nationally representative sample, excluding only areas of instability in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan.
Of respondents with no schooling, 17 percent said they viewed the Pakistani Taliban favorably, 45 percent unfavorably, and 38 percent had no opinion. Among those with a university degree, 15 percent saw the group favorably and 69 percent unfavorably. The same pattern holds for the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda.
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But more education does not mean less support for strict Islamist policies. Take the issue of blasphemy. In the mid-1980s, Pakistan’s military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq added laws to the penal code making blasphemy against the Koran and the prophet Muhammad criminally punishable by life in prison or death respectively.
Before Zia’s amendments, only 14 blasphemy cases had ever been recorded in Pakistan under the old colonial penal code, which included offenses against any religion and carried a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. But between 1987 and 2014, more than 1,300 blasphemy charges were lodged with the police, including those brought by ordinary citizens against other citizens. And those are just the accusations made officially. Last April, dozens of university students in Mardan, Pakistan, dragged a fellow student, Mashal Khan, out of his dorm and beat him to death after he was accused of posting “anti-Islam” content on social media.
In a 2011 Pew Research Center poll on religion that surveyed 1,512 adults across Pakistan, 75 percent of respondents said they believed the blasphemy laws were necessary to protect Islam. A similar percentage said they favored the death penalty for converts who “leave” Islam.
Even more striking, support for the death penalty for apostasy does not depend on one’s formal education. Between 70 and 80 percent of Pakistanis at each level of education, from no schooling to university degrees, support the death penalty for leaving Islam.
Why isn’t education a consistent force for religious tolerance?
As I show in my new book, “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State,” the Pakistani legal and educational system has been deeply affected by the government’s goal of Islamizing the country.
Naturally, one can see this agenda in Pakistan’s religious seminaries or madrassas, many of which were created or repurposed to train mujahideen for the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, funded largely by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United States. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, some madrassas’ textbooks explicitly state that apostates should be prosecuted or even killed. It is difficult to tell how pervasive this is, but their curricula tend toward extremism. While madrassas account for less than 1 percent of Pakistan’s educational enrollment, their graduates often become influential as mosque prayer leaders or teachers of public schools’ compulsory Islamic studies.
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But madrassas are not the only source of Pakistan’s Islamic education. In 1981, Zia’s government told textbook authors of Pakistan Studies, a core course from high school through university, to design texts “to guide students towards the ultimate goal of Pakistan — the creation of a completely Islamized State.” That goal remains.
These textbooks describe a world in which Muslims are the victims of the non-Muslim world, especially India and the West. In the Punjab textbooks from the 2000s, the word “evil” was repeatedly used to describe other religions. Millions studied those books. The word was removed after new textbooks were issued in 2013 following President Pervez Musharraf’s curriculum reform, but biases against other religions remain.
The vast majority of Pakistani students — those in public schools or in low-cost private schools — study this government curriculum and are often trained to memorize it. A tiny elite minority study a different curriculum, run by the British Cambridge education board.
At the height of the Pakistan Taliban insurgency in 2013-2014, I interviewed high school students and teachers in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. The majority blamed the terrorist attacks on India and the United States. This sometimes took the form of a conspiracy theory — that the United States and India had sent attackers to Pakistan or trained them because these countries were “out to get” Pakistan.
More often, students told me that the Taliban was only retaliating against U.S. drone strikes or against the Pakistani government’s alliance with the United States. A significant minority told me that the Pakistani Taliban was engaging in terrorism only to establish “an Islamic system” in Pakistan, implying that goal was justified.
The educational approach doesn’t appear likely to change
In December 2014, the TTP attacked a Peshawar school and killed more than 130 schoolchildren. In response, the Pakistani government compiled a National Action Plan that said the state would regulate seminaries and eliminate extremist literature.
But there’s been little enforcement. In fact, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government has increased funding to the most radical of these seminaries, the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak, where Taliban leader Mohammad Omar reportedly studied.
In the mid-2000s, Musharraf’s government tried to remove biases and reduce religious content from curricula. That largely failed, defeated by conservative textbook authors and education department officials. As of 2010, the provinces control educational curricula — and Pakistan’s provincial governments are often quite conservative, unlikely to pursue reform.
And without reform, expanding educational opportunities is not likely to reduce Pakistani support for extremist policies.
Madiha Afzal is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State” (Brookings Institution Press, 2018).