The Easter bombing of civilians in a park in Lahore follows a long rise of religious extremism in Pakistan and a poisoning of public opinion towards minority faiths.
The jihadist group that claimed responsibility for Sunday’s suicide bombing said they had targeted Christians, though most of the 72 killed were Muslims.
On the same day, thousands of radicals began a four-day sit-in in Islamabad over the execution of a bodyguard who killed a provincial governor who had been a voice for religious tolerance.
Yet the toxic religious atmosphere in Pakistan can’t be blamed entirely on jihadis on the periphery of society, or on the system of religious madrassas.
In recent years in government-approved schools, students are using textbooks that teach hostility towards all forms of thought and expression – except orthodox Sunni Islam.
Pakistani intellectuals and secular educators argue that the texts present a steady pitter patter of negative views on other faiths, on democracy and the West, that begin at the earliest grades and continue through high school graduation.
The books claim that Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh faiths, and even minority Muslim ethnic groups are inferior if not dangerous and should be opposed. They often present stereotyped images from history – the crusades in the Middle Ages, unjust colonial British civil servants, Jewish moneylenders, or of marauding Sikhs warriors – as if these are current affairs and represent popular views in the West and India today.
The texts also adopt fundamentalist arguments that Muslim individuals are responsible for taking independent action against those who are not virtuous.
Nearly 70 percent of Pakistani students attend public schools, according to the Center of Research and Security Studies. The Islamabad-based think tank points out that government committees decide on the content in curriculums.
“The textbooks take the readers to an absolute point of view that stops students from thinking critically and takes them into isolated thinking,” says Khadim Hussain, a Peshawar-based writer on militancy and the director of an educational foundation.
In a seventh-grade social studies text, students read: “History has no parallel to the extremely kind treatment of the Christians by the Muslims. Still the Christian kingdoms of Europe were constantly trying to gain control of Jerusalem.”
Relations with Jews are presented in a seventh grade text in this way: “Some Jewish tribes also lived in Arabia. They lent money to workers and peasants on high rates of interest and usurped their earnings.”
Sixth graders are taught that, “Christians and Europeans were not happy to see Muslims flourishing.”
Seventh graders read, learn, and are tested on material from texts that teach the Crusades almost as current affairs and offer a very narrow view of Christianity without describing the nearly universal approbation against them taken later.
“These wars are called crusades because the Pope, a head of the Christians, called a council of war,” the text states. “In this meeting he declared that Jesus Christ sanctioned war against Muslims.”
By 10th grade students learn not just that jihad is a form of internal struggle for the faithful, but that, “In Islam Jihad is very important. The person who offers his life never dies. All prayers nurture one’s passion for Jihad.”
Some government officials and public school teachers and officials privately say these readings encourage hate and bigotry and over time act as a form of brainwashing. They say that previous social studies courses presented a diverse smorgasbord of ideas and comparative concepts comparable to those in the West and cause students to turn inward.
“These texts present a world view that has nothing to do with real studies and the real world. The texts showing up in public schools repeatedly describe Christians and Jews as enemies of Islam,” Mr. Hussain says.
The leaders of the Jamat-ul-Ahrar, the organization that claimed responsibility for the attack on Christians in Lahore, graduated from public schools.
The spokesman of a jihadi group that claimed a recent attack on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, a town near Peshawar, got his first education from a regular school. The attack on Jan. 20, which killed 21 students and teachers, had symbolic importance since the college is named after a Pashtun leader known for his philosophy of non-violence against British rule.
Since the Lahore attack, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has been criticized for offering no real plan to tackle militancy. On Tuesday, military and civilian leaders chose to blame India for alleged espionage in Pakistan’s volatile Balochistan province.
The military has also vowed to extend a crackdown that began after the slaughter of more than 130 students in a military school in late 2014. Civil society activists point out that this approach hasn’t ended militancy, even though the Army claims that it is killing thousands of radicals a year.