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Building Peace Through Education In Pakistan

Robin Brooke-Smith talking to students wearing the distinct green blazers of Edwardes College.
Robin Brooke-Smith talking to students wearing the distinct green blazers of Edwardes College.

Awarding this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Youzafzai is a glimmer of hope for building lasting peace in Pakistan through quality liberal education.

The Pakistani teenager paid a heavy price for speaking out about Taliban atrocities in her home district of Swat, part of the volatile northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, when she survived a Taliban assassination attempt in 2012.

Malala's inspiring story has attracted global attention, but I feel a key lesson of her struggle often gets less attention.

The lesson is that all the weapons and military might in the world will not restore peace to Pakistan unless it partners with the world to invest in an education sector capable of teaching the country's tens of millions of students a new worldview and skills compatible with the contemporary economy and global currents.

After suffering tremendously at the hands of extremists and as a result of military operations during the past decade, Pakistanis have at last woken up to the dangers posed by extremism to their security, livelihoods, and even to the very existence of their country.

They realize that a tiny minority among them is determined to drag them back to the Stone Age by invoking a religious struggle and promising the creation of a utopian society through violence that they claim will be based on the principles of religious piety.

But the deaths of 50,000 Pakistani civilians and soldiers, millions of internally displaced people, and tens of billions of dollars in economic losses have demonstrated to Pakistanis that Islamic extremists are unlikely to ever improve their lives.

I saw this storm brewing when I was principal of Edwardes College in Peshawar in the late 1990s. The ancient city is the capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and I had a ringside seat to the beginnings of Islamist extremism there as the shadows of terror lengthened in the run-up to September 11 and beyond.

Edwardes College is an old church foundation and a remarkable place, whose founding aim was to create a “community of harmony and peace.” With 95 percent Muslim and 5 percent Christian students, the frontier between Islam and Christianity ran right through the college.

Even in those days of relative calm and peace in Pakhtunkhwa, there were signs of tempests to come. We witnessed the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, often with the acquiescence of Pakistan's powerful military.

My main challenge at the college was to promote and preserve the values of liberal education. While the society outside the college fence was being rapidly radicalized through violence, the media, and political mobilization, we concentrated on promoting free thinking.

As the college celebrated its centenary in 2000, another of my major challenges was to make it co-educational. I will never forget the support I received from Muslim and Christian parents who took great pride in adorning their daughters in the green and white uniforms of one of the best institutions in their province.

Many of the parents, politicians, and officials helped us to counter the rumors and venom from radical mullahs and their sympathizers that the media spewed against us. I also had to constantly battle against the Diocese of Peshawar, who wanted to control the college because it was seen as a prized possession for Peshawar's impoverished Christian community.

It struck me at the time, and it has become more evident since, that extremism is very unpopular in Pakistani society as a whole. In most elections since independence in 1947, for instance, the extreme religious parties have failed to make any impact.

Pakistan now must build a peaceful future rooted in the strengths and preferences of its people. Investment in liberal education is essential for building peace and a lasting culture of tolerance and reconciliation.

Pakistan needs to act quickly to boost its literacy rates now standing at a dismal level of less than 60 percent. The goal of education should be to promote critical thinking, open and honest scholarship, and to discourage indoctrination and rote learning. It should provide the students knowledge of their own languages, cultures, sciences, society and the contemporary world. Such an education will not be complete without practical skills and the ability to apply them in real life.

It is high-time for Pakistan to embrace Malala's ideas. Liberal education guarantees Pakistan a prosperous, peaceful future. Books, pens and an emancipated educated youth are its best weapons in its journey towards unity, peace, and development.

Robin Brooke-Smith is the author of Storm Warning: Riding the Crosswinds in the Pakistan-Afghan Borderlands (London, I.B. Tauris, 2012). These views are of the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.