The federal government is contemplating the introduction of the Arabic language in primary and secondary schools to combat terrorism, according to a recent statement by the minister of religious affairs. It is assumed that once students are well versed in the language of the Holy Quran, they are less likely to be misguided. Those behind the formulation of this policy should consider that often members of extremist groups are well versed in Arabic but this has not prevented them from becoming extremists. Learning a language has no bearing on the world view that a person holds. If it did, then the Arab world would be an oasis of peace.
Unfortunately, the acquisition of Arabic does not enable people to fully understand or interpret religious texts. There are hundreds of years of jurisprudence and context that are required for decoding religious doctrine. Teaching children to read Arabic will not involve a simultaneous education in Islamic jurisprudence. It is, therefore, unlikely to serve the desired purpose. The introduction of a new language would require the hiring and training of thousands of new teachers. An investment of billions would be required to implement this counterterrorism strategy, the results of which — if ever apparent — would take years to manifest themselves in society.
Counterterrorism measures that offer better value for money should be prioritised. In a country where bomb disposal squads work without protective gear, surely there are more pressing priorities. Often, men with nothing but the shirts on their backs stand between the average citizen and terrorists gunning for them. Our citizens and law enforcers deserve better and sooner.
Let us put aside the efficacy and sanity of this as a counterterrorism strategy and focus on its implications for the education sector. According to the 2012 ASER survey, about 75 to 80 per cent of students in class three cannot read sentences in English or their local regional language meant for students studying in class two. We can barely teach children two languages. There is no merit in teaching an additional language poorly.
The introduction of Arabic is not a new idea. It has been implemented before and the results of prior implementation must be reviewed. The government needs to take a cold, hard look at the impact that learning Arabic has had on children previously. Both their linguistic proficiency and world view can and should be assessed. We cannot continue to let education policy be dictated by political expediency and need to shift focus on needs defined by evidence. If the government is serious about combating the extremist mindset, then teaching children to read another language will be of little use. Teaching them the critical thinking skills required to understand texts is far more essential. A review of existing textbooks riddled with hate and historical inaccuracies that breed ignorance is more urgent.
Our historic neglect of the education sector has us lagging behind regional and global peers in major education indicators, ranging from enrolment to student learning. If we continue to formulate education policy in a vacuum of both, evidence and sanity, it is unlikely that we will be able to produce a workforce that can compete globally. It is unlikely that we will produce citizens that are tolerant or compassionate and it is unlikely that we will extricate Pakistan from the shackles of terrorism that grip it and are suffocating it.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2014.