Religious minority discrimination rooted in textbooks

The wave of religious intolerance sweeping across the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is probably one of the greatest threats to the country’s stability and development.

Intolerance, in general terms, is present at all levels and in all sectors in Pakistan, but the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities is particularly concerning. One of the root causes of this lack of tolerance for diversity in Pakistani society seems to be coming from the education system and the substance of the curriculum. The content of school textbooks particularly shapes the way young minds think about different issues. In Pakistan textbooks are of paramount importance as they are part of the political perspectives and national ideologies of a whole nation.

Seven decades of successive governments in Pakistan have contributed to putting in place systems that have resulted in political, economic and social discrimination of religious minorities, and one where acts of violence against minorities is encouraged by radical Islamic groups. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the man attributed with establishing the Islamic Republic of Pakistan envisaged a majority Islamic State but one which embraced all religions. Since its creation however, successive governments in Pakistan have put in place policies that have resulted in the discrimination and persecution of religious minorities. In reality the Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and even Ahmadi and Shia Muslims are all being targeted by the State, extremists and fundamentalists.   

Over the years, references to religious minorities have been diligently removed from textbooks used in schools leaving Islam alone as the acceptable belief system to be ingrained in children’s minds at an early age. Even worse, non-Islamic faiths and non-Muslims are portrayed as being inferior, unclean and not to be trusted. Textbooks also show non-Muslims as partisans to Pakistan’s enemies, namely associating the Pakistani Christians as Westerners or British colonial oppressors, and Pakistani Hindus as Indians. These perceptions predispose students to make clear distinctions between Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. These books depict any non-Muslim population as outsider, untrustworthy and maybe even unpatriotic, ultimately creating a sort of ‘us versus them’ mentality.  

This culture of intolerance towards minorities in textbooks comes, first of all, from the glorification of Islam and demonisation of all other religions. The National Early Childhood Education curriculum lists the sense of Islamic pride and identity as one of the objectives in education. Furthermore, the study of Islamiyat (Islamic studies) has been introduced in the curricula of many courses, not just religious ones, which means that non-Muslim Pakistani minorities are also being taught Islamic content. This not only violates the country’s Constitution, which stipulates that students should not have to receive education in a religion other than their own, but it is also extremely discriminatory towards minorities.

In principle it may seem as a good idea to inculcate youth with Islamic basic principles, such as truth, honesty, duty and justice. But in reality, what is being taught is that religious minorities are second-class citizens, considering Muslims as the sole ‘true’ Pakistani. For instance, Hindus are described as ‘extremists and eternal enemies of Islam whose culture and society is based on injustice and cruelty, while Islam delivers a message of peace and brotherhood.’

In 2016, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) conducted a review of Pakistani public school textbooks. In its report, ‘Teaching Intolerance in Pakistan’, the Commission highlighted several quotes found in school textbooks.  One textbook states “Because the Muslim religion, culture and social system are different from non-Muslims, it is impossible to cooperate with Hindus”. Not only does this quote illustrate how education actually fuels intolerance between communities, but it also ignores how Hindus and Muslims have peacefully coexisted for centuries in the region.

Distortion or omission of necessary historical facts from textbooks can also explain the overall intolerance in Pakistan. Minorities are not being fairly represented in history books as their own issues are only addressed in conjunction with the Muslim ones and the strong emphasis on Pakistan being a purely Muslim State isolates non-Muslim communities, implying they have no place in Pakistan. Furthermore, misrepresenting widely disputed historical facts only inflames the tension. For instance, the breaking-up of Pakistan, where East Pakistan became Bangladesh, is attributed to India as the one who instigated hate amongst West Bengalis. In reality, Bangladesh was formed as an independent State to avoid the repression and extremism of then West Pakistan and its desires to be a solely Islamic State. The Bangladesh has succeeded in being both independent and secular, despite having a majority Muslim population.  In its report, the USCIRF also highlights the dangerous distortion of historical facts in textbooks. One example found was where manipulating facts and conspiracy was used to portray Hindus and Christians as enemies of Muslims “There were two enemies of Muslims, the Englishmen and Hindus. Both of these were against the formation of Pakistan. On one hand, the Englishmen renounced the division plan of Hindustan, while on the other hand, Hindus were planning to occupy the entire Hindustan and enslave Muslims….”

All these ideas are responsible for incitement of hate between the communities. These feelings eventually manifest themselves in the form of terrorism, violence or hate crimes.

The report of the Commission also compares its findings with the 2011 review of the International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), ‘Connecting the Dots: Education and Religious in Pakistan’. The Commission found that while many examples of religious intolerance that were found in the 2011 textbooks had been removed, others had been added. It concluded that little progress has been made in removing religious biases and that ‘the public school system is still fundamentally intolerant of religious minorities’. If such bias is not removed from the textbooks, Pakistan will have generations of young students, who will become the leaders of tomorrow, completely brainwashed and indoctrinated towards perpetuating this intolerance. In a country that was built on religious acceptance, it is necessary to preserve both religious and cultural diversity.

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