Education and Terror
By Rafia Zakaria
LATE last year, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism released a report that tabulated data from 1970 to 2013. The purpose of the report was to study how, where and at what rate educational institutions are being targeted by terror groups. Although the report’s data collection stopped at the year 2013, Pakistan was still ranked first.
Out of 3,400 attacks spread over 110 countries in the time period studied, 724 took place in Pakistan, making up close to a fourth of the entire number. This was so even without including the grisly attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School in December 2014. Ten per cent of all terrorist attacks in Pakistan targeted schools. The second position was held by Thailand, which experienced 213 attacks — less than half the number of attacks in Pakistan.
According to the report, schools, educational institutions and universities were 88pc more likely to be targeted in the country than the world average, which stands at 69pc. The majority of the attacks on schools (and, once again, this does not include Peshawar) were non-lethal and directed at educational infrastructure.
They included most frequently explosive devices, arson or incendiary devices that were pointed at primary, middle or high schools while the buildings were unoccupied. Three-quarters of the attacks were carried out by “unknown perpetrators” even though the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan took responsibility for 136 of them.
The fact that the Peshawar attack was, unlike the many hundred preceding ones, particularly intended to cause a huge loss of life represents an escalation in violence and perhaps an increased desire to target not simply infrastructure but also students — to deliberately cause the loss of life rather than simply a loss of infrastructure.
Is it easier to blow up a school when one has never been to school, when one believes knowledge to be inaccessible to oneself?
Recently, I wrote about the dismal state of education spending in Pakistan. The latest Unesco report I quoted said that Pakistan’s spending, at 2.5pc of the GDP, is one of the lowest in the world. According to the same report, in 2012 Pakistan had the largest number of out-of-school children in the world, numbering about 5.4 million, outdoing for instance India which has a much larger population.
Just as the terrorism report reveals that girls’ schools are more likely to be targeted for destruction, so the Unesco report reveals that girls are less likely to be educated and less money is spent on their education. Destroying girls’ access to education is a top priority for terrorists — providing that same access is a low priority for the state. Together they create a perfect collusion of ignorance, an insistence that the female remain relegated to a short life of child bearing and illiteracy.
There are of course concrete things that can be done. The organisation Alif Ailaan, which has done exemplary work in data collection and presentation in the education sector, recently released its 2015 district rankings. The compilation reflects their effort to make education a basis of evaluating politicians and their commitments to the issue.
Included, thus, are rankings by politicians of how districts are faring in educational rankings in the hope of furthering the norm that those in power owe it to their constituents to augment the measly sums normally dedicated to education.
In the table provided in the report, Mian Nawaz Sharif’s district in Lahore, from where he has been re-elected a whopping seven times, is placed at number three among the 148 national districts ranked. On a topic on which hope is elusive or just plain unavailable, it is perhaps a good thing that this is so.
At the same time, one can’t help but wonder if the requirement for a district doing well in education rankings is having their elected representative ascend to great heights and become prime minister. It may well be the case, but regardless, the efforts of Alif Ailaan to juxtapose the two — political office and the improvement of education — are commendable. If not education itself, they promote at least the premise that education and its provision is a reasonable expectation for the Pakistani citizen.
To those who have been engaged in scratching their collective heads on the languishing literacy rates in the country, the cumulative results of the reports should provide some food for thought.
Is the government of Pakistan refusing to invest in educational infrastructure because it believes it to be a futile endeavour, buildings erected only to lie hollow and empty and eventually be blown up by terrorist adversaries? At the same time, it could be alleged that the opposition to education, the destruction of it, is related to its absence and its close relationship to class, the relative unavailability of it to the very poor.
One cannot help but wonder whether it is easier to blow up a school when one has never been to school, to be a foot soldier in the war on knowledge if one believes it to be inaccessible to oneself.
Data collection and the formulation of reports are crucial pieces of the education puzzle in Pakistan. Other portions, however, pose deeper questions whose answers may not be as easily captured in numbers and reports.
A war on education, one that has landed Pakistan on top of the list of countries where terror targets classrooms, must be understood not as something incidental, some small offshoot of some other ideological agenda.
It is, instead, the war itself, a battle that believes that in the isolation of ignorance, which is precisely the result of its onslaught, there lies some form of authenticity. It is this imagined school-less land that is at issue here; and it is this belief in it that is reflected in the low numbers of the learned and the ever-towering ones of those who have put their faith in ignorance.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications. She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015).