The Punjab government’s recent decision to implement Quranic education for all students through Grade 1 to 12 represents another flawed policy that could possibly polarise an already divided society. The government has come up with a comprehensive plan to inculcate Islamic values and education within students. At the higher secondary level, Islamic education will be paired with Urdu translations of the Quran. Earlier, in January this year, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government also made the decision to implement Quranic education in all schools across the province in the forthcoming academic year.

Islam is not a monolithic religion, and with countless interpretations of the Quran as religious scripture, which one will the state adhere to? It is not likely that the Indian subcontinent’s historically Sufi Islamic traditions will be promoted. It seems more probable that the Sunni Deobandi interpretations that dominate the national religious discourse will also gain prominence in the education imparted to students. As such, the Education Ministry has been consulting with Islamic scholars and the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) to come up with a cohesive syllabus. It is rather perplexing to expect an orthodox and regressive institution, notorious for continually labelling the Ahmadi community as non-Muslims, to assemble a tolerant and unbigoted interpretation of Islam.

In his efforts to make Quranic education compulsory, the provincial leader, Rana Mashhood Ahmed Khan, stated that this move would contribute towards improved attitudes and behaviours of the students in accordance with Islamic principles. The flawed presumption of linking arbitrarily defined ‘good behaviour’ to Islamic teachings, tends to assume those lacking Islamic knowledge would not exhibit such good behaviour. As such, this thinking represents the fundamental issue with making religious education compulsory. It opens a Pandora’s Box that will contribute to already growing polarisation within society, where religious, ethnic and sectarian minorities are on the fringes battling for inclusion.

In this regard, the existing problematic nature of Pakistan’s curriculum relates to how it doesn’t counter or oppose any prejudiced narratives within the country, but instead fuels and propagates them. A 2015 report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) that affirms that intolerance, bigotry and biases are common standards emanating from the educational system in three provinces of the country – Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. Religiously influenced narratives in the education system fuel a division between ‘us’ (the Sunni Muslims) and ‘them’ (all minorities).

Already, the textbooks portray Pakistani identity as not only Punjab-centric, but fundamentally Islamic and Sunni in nature. As such, the identities of religious minorities such as Ahmadis, and ethnicities such as the Balochis, are painted in broad strokes of suspicion, inferiority and mediocrity. Pakistan’s National Commission for Peace and Justice noted that textbooks in Punjab advocate that, “honesty for non-Muslims is merely a business strategy, while for Muslims it is a matter of faith”. In addition, derogatory references to Christians and Hindus present in textbooks ignore the contributions of these communities to the country’s development. Thus, while the provincial government indulges in such policies to appease the religious clergy and electorate, the more pressing issue of a synthesis between overt religiosity and intolerance towards minorities, liberal values and secularism within the curriculum is neglected.

Article 22(1) of the constitution mentions that, “No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction … other than his or her own.” However, reports indicate that even though it is permissible for non-Muslim students to opt out of studying Islam as a subject, they choose not to do so due to resulting stigmatisation. Students not undertaking Islamic studies have an option to study ‘Ethics’, which is again taught from a predominantly Islamic perspective. Reports have also indicated that non-Muslim students, such as Hindus and Christians, opting for this subject face discrimination by teachers and fellow students.

A move to further Islamise the educational system invariably leads to a dangerous trajectory where a uniform and singular identity is being inculcated within a diverse population of multiple faiths, sects and ethnicities. This is bound to strengthen intolerance towards differences with compounding cases of persecution of those who are perceivably dissimilar from what is defined as an ‘acceptable Muslim’.

In essence, the need of the hour is not to make religious education obligatory. Islam is not the solution to the inadequacies and shortcomings of the educational system in the country. Instead, there is a need to inculcate more humanistic values, calling for harmonious coexistence and peace regardless of religious beliefs. Significant de-Islamisation reforms in the educational curriculum are essential for a society with numerous instances of traction for extremist narratives, hate mongering and mob violence against Christians, allegations of blasphemy against those who are moderate and secular, and a refusal to condemn extremist groups targeting the Shia community and Ahmadis.