Scholar offers insights on Pakistan’s extremism, foreign policy
By Patricia Cason
RICHMOND— On March 5, Madiha Afzal explained Pakistan’s long-term strategies to decrease extremism at the Jefferson Hotel. During the event, Afzal gave an overview on how Pakistan’s changing extremism is related to education and foreign policy.
Afzal holds a doctorate in economics from Yale University and is the Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization. Her research there primarily focuses on Pakistan.
During the presentation, Afzal emphasized that Pakistan’s image as a hotbed of extremism has abated in recent years. She attributes this to dramatically reduced levels of violence in the country but cautioned that the education system of the country remains influenced by Islamism.
Islamism can be defined as the use of religion for political purposes, said Michael Robbins, who holds a doctorate in political science and is the director of the Arab Barometer.
“It’s essentially a creation of scholars, particularly in the West, to describe a phenomenon of abusing religion, kind of instrumentally for a political purpose,” Robbins said about Islamism. The Arab Barometer is a research network that assesses the attitudes and values of citizens across the Arab world.
Afzal said the number of terrorism related incidents had dropped from about four thousand in 2013 to just under 300 in 2019. Afzal said one reason for the decrease in violence in Pakistan is the “kinetic action” the military has taken against the Taliban.
Looking forward, Afzal said Pakistan is “turning over a new leaf” in 2020. The country is projecting a new image and foreign policy.
One of the ways the country is doing this is through social media. Al Jazeera reported last week that the Pakistani government is inviting travel vloggers to visit the country and broadcast the trips to the millions that watch their online content.
Some Pakistanis note that the foreign social media influencers enjoy access to areas of the country that are forbidden to Pakistanis. Others are frustrated that the new Pakistan is being defined by Western influencers.
Al Jazeera also reported in February that Pakistan’s government has approved new rules to regulate social media. The regulations state that social media companies will be forced to help law enforcement agencies access data and remove “unlawful” online content. Some say these new laws stifle free speech.
Afzal said that while Pakistan is trying to change its image, many aspects of the country remain the same. One of these is Pakistan’s education system.
Afzal said the education system has been a key method “through which the state has instituted intolerance and these confused narratives on terrorism.” She cited mandatory courses students take that imply the state ideology is Islam.
“You have to study these textbooks, sort of memorize them, regurgitate them on exams, you can’t even question them,” she said.
Robbins from the Arab Barometer said controlling the curriculum of public education is a big element of the Islamist attempt to gain influence in society. This often involves moving supporters into positions in the department of education. Robbins said Islamist groups believe that if sympathizers are educating the youth, these generations will be more sympathetic to Islamist ideologies when they’re older, resulting in a grassroots movement. This is seen as a successful long-term strategy.
“So it’s not about today, it’s about, 20, 30 years from now. And so controlling the curriculum was always a big element of the Islamist attempt to gain influence in society,” he said.
Afzal argued that the mandatory religious classes set up a framework that makes people vulnerable to terrorist propaganda, and this has bolstered extremism.
“Islamists are still strong,” she said. “They don’t ever win elections in any big way, but they are very strong in terms of street power. They’re strong because they influence the education system and Pakistan’s laws. They’re strong because they help build coalitions in parliament.”
Robbins believes teaching religion without allowing students to question it results in one of two outcomes.
“You can either have people take what they’re taught, accept it, and kind of go on, or you can have people have a backlash,” he said. “It isn’t just as if everyone is going to be indoctrinated by this.”
Some attendees at the event wanted to learn more about their roots, while others were there to become more informed citizens. Nayaab Khan attended because she’s from Pakistan and wanted to get more insight into current events in the country.
“This is more of an event to reconnect with the culture and the politics that are going on,” Khan said. “I’ve been more concerned with the politics here because I live here, but I do think it’s important to be connected to what’s going on back home as well.”
Khan also emphasized the importance of being educated on global current events.
“If you’re aware of what’s going on around the world then it reduces the level of ignorance, and in this nation that’s especially important,” she said.