At my age, few things shock me anymore. Over the years, I have seen enough horrors to harden me against most of the terrible things we do to each other.
But a short video clip that did the rounds on social media recently almost made my stomach turn. The brief film showed a few boys around seven or eight years old hanging a doll, shouting: “Aasia Bibi has been hanged!” The video concluded with the giggling kids chanting “Labbaik!”
I have no idea if the boys had been coached by their elders to play this gruesome charade for the camera, or whether they had thought of it on their own. In either case, the video is a telling reminder — if one was needed — of how far we have sunk as a society. Among the many awful things we have done to Pakistani children is the systematic brainwashing we have subjected them to.
Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, as the militant Catholic group was called, is supposed to have claimed: “Give me the child for the first seven years, and I will give you the man.”
Operating on this principle, Gen Zia overloaded school curricula with Arabic and religious content during his baneful military rule. His acolytes in many religious parties have continued dragging children in state schools along this ruinous path ever since.
But not only are curricula full of xenophobic content, our schools themselves are hardly conducive to learning. On any given day, one out of five teachers are not in their classrooms; 65 per cent of government schools have no boundary walls; 55pc are located in dilapidated, often unsafe, structures; 55pc have no toilets, a great deterrent for girls wishing to study; and 64pc have no running water.
And this is the state of affairs when some 23 million kids — or 44pc of the school-going population — are out of school. So when Pakistani leaders boast — as Imran Khan did in Shanghai recently — of our “vibrant, youthful” population, they forget to mention the vast numbers with no education.
Apart from the children working and begging across the country, some 3.5m are estimated to be enrolled in our mushrooming madressahs. Here, they learn the scriptures parrot-fashion, with little or no emphasis on the tolerance and compassion that is at the heart of all great religions. Who would employ them on graduation, and what are they qualified for that would give them meaningful careers?
Add to these dismal facts the polluted water and inadequate diet available to the vast majority of Pakistani children, and you begin to get a picture of the criminal neglect we are guilty of. Our leaders keep saying they want to learn from China. Well, lesson number one is that despite its backwardness until the 1990s, the country’s Communist Party focused on education and health. As a result, it has a literate and healthy workforce. We, on the other hand, have consistently failed our children.
Politicians like to claim that young people are an asset. Actually, unless they can read and write, they can become a liability. In this age of high-tech equipment and integrated supply chains, the inability to read instructions is a great drawback.
But socially and politically, the worst thing we have done to our children is to allow the most retrograde elements in society to take control of their education. Those rampaging in cities across the country recently against the Aasia Bibi judgement were clearly underemployed: who can take time out from regular work to spend day after day on violent street protests?
Some years ago, Herald published the results of a poll about changing social and religious attitudes among young men and women. The overwhelming majority supported the most backward interpretation of religious attitudes and punishments. Now many of Zia’s spiritual children are parents, and their kids are imbibing their values.
Clearly, then, Ignatius Loyola’s dictum has been learned and internalised by our clerics. Realising the importance of education as a tool to brainwash the young, they have firmly resisted any changes to school curricula that would bring them in line with modern requirements. Politicians and generals have caved in to these pressures time after time.
So when Imran Khan and his economic team talk about increasing exports and give Malaysia’s and China’s success as examples, they forget that both countries have literacy rates way beyond ours. If Bangladesh can raise its literacy rate to 72pc, we need to ask ourselves why we fail to educate our children.
Even the kids who do make it to school receive a substandard education. Indeed, the irony is that in a country with so much unemployment, it is difficult to find qualified candidates for high-tech jobs like the IT sector. And yet whistling up mobs to take the streets is no problem at all.