04/14/2011, 00.00
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Muslim journalist advocates public schools along Christian model

For Aoun Sahi, an editorial writer for News International, education means guaranteeing equal opportunity to a high quality education. The country’s Islamist drift has sunk deep roots. For this reason, “politics and civil society need to work on an education reform”, and an alliance with Christians could “do wonders in the education sector”.
Lahore (AsiaNews) – Educating means guaranteeing equal opportunity for children to have access to “quality education” through cooperation between political leaders and civil society. Today, instead, “a distorted ideology of Pakistan as a fortress of Islam has penetrated so deeply the minds of Pakistanis, especially the youth, that it will take decades of serious efforts to bring us back on the right track,” said Aoun Sahi, a Muslim editorial writer with The News International who was last year’s Daniel Pearl/Alfred Friendly Press Fellow. He has also been a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, and was special correspondent in Lahore for the Washington Post, LA Times and the UK’s The Telegraph.
A journalist with in-depth knowledge of his country’s economic and cultural reality, he believes that “politics and civil society need to work on an education reform that should aim at providing all children with an environment conducive to learning, a competent teacher, and a high quality curriculum.”
For the Muslim journalist, “the services of Christian minority to our education sector are commendable [. . .] [W]hat we need as a nation at present is to benefit from the expertise of the Christian minority in the education sector. An education alliance between a forward-looking Muslim majority and the Christian minority can do wonders in the education sector.”
Here is Aoun Sahi’s interview with AsiaNews:
Ali Jinnah said same rights for all, freedom of religion and free and compulsory education. Why were these directions not applied?
Although Muhammad Ali Jinnah, during the first Education Conference 1947, categorically stressed on taking practical steps in reforming the whole education system of the country, the situation in the education sector of Pakistan has been very uncertain and critical. The country, in fact, lost its direction altogether after the death of Jinnah, only 13 months after its establishment.  The passage of Objectives Resolution in 1949 by the legislative was the first blow to the secular, progressive vision of Jinnah that promised freedom of religion and free and compulsory education. This resolution promised a blurred sense of Islamic identity and statehood and strengthened the fundamentalist religious lobby that had opposed Pakistan in the first place.
General Zia's draconian rule (1977-88) was the worst for both education and religious freedom in the country. He handed over the education ministry to one of country’s most fanatic religious political party, which brought a systematic distortion of history and textbooks as a state policy. The persecution of minorities was sanctified and man-made laws against women and minorities were promulgated, citing them as divine pronouncements. The blasphemy laws introduced by the Zia regime were the worst among them. The Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union financed this ideological ascendancy and totally changed the complexion of our society. It was in fact the last nail in the coffin of Jinnah’s Pakistan, which became the military’s and the mullah’s Pakistan.
Today, a distorted ideology of Pakistan as fortress of Islam has penetrated so deeply the minds of Pakistanis, especially the youth, that it will take decades of serious efforts to bring us back on the right track.
Which role madrassas play inside the country’s educational system and how important are they? Are they "potential" centres for extremism, as suggested in recent reports?
In Pakistan’s education system, madrassas are very important but also the most neglected. Madrassa reforms are not any progress in the country. Even though, they are only about 7 per cent of primary schools in Pakistan, their influence is amplified by the deficiencies of public education and the inborn religiosity of the majority of the population. Right now, there are more than 13,000 registered religious madrassas in the country catering to over 1.5 million students. Amazingly, around 75 per cent of these registered seminaries belong to the Deobandi school of Islamic thought (Taliban, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan are follower of the same ideology). Interestingly, in Pakistan the ratio of Deobandi Islam followers in population is between 25 and 30 per cent. These religious proponents of Deobani Islam have spread in every corner of the country, clamouring for Jihad against everything that is non-Islamic to them.
Official figures show that 30 per cent  of students live in condition of  "extreme" educational poverty. Around 25 million students have been denied their educational rights. Which solutions can or should politics offer and what can civil society give?
The deteriorating levels of education in Pakistan have become a permanent condition that successive governments, both civilian and military, have been unable to solve. Despite having ten different education policies since its establishment in 1947, Pakistan has failed to prioritize education to the extent that at the current rates, Punjab, the largest province of the country will be able to educate all its children only by 2041, while Baluchistan, the most backward province, will do it by 2100.  In fact, education for the masses has not been a priority of the state. If the state provided gave a higher priority, it could have found more money for education already. In addition, it could have ensured the money spent on education was better utilised.
Education is about access of all children to quality schools; both must go hand-in-hand for an education system to work.   If quality is not focused on, as in the public sector education system in Pakistan, even if access is good, children will not stay in schools for long. The massive dropout and non-completion rates in Pakistan are linked to this issue. The quality is also a major issue for the parents who have not been sending their children to schools. Both parents and children feel that even after spending 8-10 years in school they get nothing out of it. Access to education is also a big issue in rural areas for girls. This should be addressed as a priority but provision of low quality education to all is not the solution of the problem but in fact it is a part of it.
I think politics and civil society need to work on an education reform that should aim at providing all children with an environment conducive to learning, a competent teacher, and a high quality curriculum.
Studies say that 51 per cent of Pakistanis are deprived of basic education. Private schools succeed in what should be a key role of the State. The nation is held up by extremism and radical groups. Do you think it is a real problem, that it may be the major one for Pakistan and which steps can be taken to reverse the situation?
It seems that Pakistan is slipping fast into the gulf of illiteracy and its most dreadful consequences could be more support for the radical jihadist groups in the society, along with poverty and social fragmentation. It is true that the private sector has grown in the last decade. But barring the elite private schools, quality standards are not high in low-fee private schools, which make more than 80 percent of total private schools in the country. The low-fee private schools are worse than public schools. At present, no strong regulation of the private sector is in place in the country. The government has to do that and find ways to encourage them to improve quality.
A recent report issued by a task force established by the government reveals that Pakistan stands second amongst all countries of the world for having the most out-of-school children. In fact, one of ten children not in school in the world at the moment lives in Pakistan. Lack of funds primarily is cited as the main reason by our policymakers for the inability of the state to educate its children. It is amazing that education budget is shrinking in Pakistan, a country (according to a recent UNESCO report) that spends over seven times as much on purchasing arms as on primary schools.  Money, in fact, is not the real problem, 26 countries poorer than Pakistan manage to send more children to primary schools. The main issue is the lack of political will and commitment. The situation can be turned around in a matter of years if there is sufficient political will as shown by countries facing greater problems, like India and Brazil.
The Pakistani level of education is far lower than that of India and Bangladesh, even if economic and social conditions are similar. Who is interested in maintaining the "status quo" of a widespread ignorance? Which alternatives Christians and Muslims can offer together?
The selfishness of our political and military elite is the main reason behind the ‘status quo’. It serves their interests as they have managed so far to stop the emergence of ‘ an educated middle class’  that could challenge their monopoly in the country. The situation does not hurt the elite at all, as their children go to elite private schools and universities abroad. So they just don`t care how bad the state system is. Pakistan’s political and military elites need to understand the urgency of the situation and need to make education a priority; otherwise, the future of the country will be at stake.
In Pakistan, at present, the most affordable and secular education system in the private sector is the one  run by the Church. These institutions have been here since decades, in fact, even before the establishment of the country. The services of Christian minority to our education sector are commendable and everybody admits it. So, what we need as a nation at present is to benefit from the expertise of the Christian minority in the education sector. An education alliance between a forward-looking Muslim majority and the Christian minority could do wonders in the education sector.
A national survey reveal that 85 per cent of the population wanted a better education, even female education, because a "better education means a better political class". Why is government inactive and what should be done to achieve that goal?
The government lacks both vision and direction. It is confused and also busy on so many fronts like the war on terror, which it thinks more important than education. They need to understand that the only way to fight extremism in society is by spreading education among masses.
Less than 1.5 per cent of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is devoted to national education, while it should be around 4 per cent at least. In 2006, it was 2.5 per cent. Why does government invest only in the army and the West is interested in weapons and economic aid. What are the mistakes made by the international community with Pakistan?
Education, in fact, is not at the top of the agenda of our government, which has always been run by the military establishment. For them, the ‘defence sector’ is the most important one because they derive their power from it. As I have already mentioned, Pakistan spends seven times more on weapons than on primary education. It clearly reveals the priorities of the State of Pakistan. Unfortunately, most of the aid from West, especially from the US, so far has come in the form of military equipment, which further empowers the military. The result has been that, for more than half of its history since independence, Pakistan has been ruled directly by military dictators who have been the least interested in educating the nation.
The international community has never come on strong against these dictators when it comes to educating the masses. Instead, during Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it gave billions of dollars to then military dictator Zia who used it to strengthen the most radical jihadist groups and madrassas in the country. The international community has also hardly questioned the role played by countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq and Iran in spreading extremism in the name of Islam in Pakistan. 
Is Education the real major emergency in Pakistan nowadays? Should it be addressed with more urgency than the economy? Is that the real cause of extremism and what can be done to eradicate it?
The education system in the country is on the verge of collapse and this may be the last chance for both the government and society to react. Otherwise, ignorance (read extremism) will be rampant in our society.  This can lead further empower extremists who have been working to establish a Taliban-styled government in Pakistan. Thus, right now education should be given priority over other sectors because the survival of the country is at the stake.(DS)
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