Schools Mirror Muslim divisions

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – In the private Beacon House School, second-grade teacher Zermina Khan, who conducts class in English, recently led studies of the Sept. 11 attacks with an emphasis on American suffering.

At a public school nearby, Ghuam Mohammad and other black-uniformed boys crowded 80 to a classroom where Urdu-speaking teachers focused more on Pakistan than world affairs.

And in one of Pakistan’s proliferating religious “madrassa” schools, Hameed Jan’s students memorize the Koran word for word along with concepts such as “jihad” struggles against enemies. “America is doing terrorism against us,” says Jan.

The three schools show different forces shaping Pakistan – and much of the Muslim world from Morocco to Malaysia.

For Americans, the schools offer a glimpse into divergent versions of the future their own children will enter.

Pakistani educators say the approach to schooling will, along with economic conditions, help determine whether a new generation sees the next Osama bin Laden as Robin Hood or menace.

Currently, the future looks shaky, said Nasreen Kasuri, founder of Pakistan’s 90-school Beacon House System and leading advocate for increased spending on public schools.

“I wish we were headed toward Turkey. I am afraid we are headed more toward Iran,” said Kasuri, who knows a bit about U.S. schools from visiting friends in Colorado. “It is important for the West, by whatever means, to support liberal education in this country.”

Less than 10 percent of Pakistani families can afford private schools, which are generally Western-oriented and often comparable with the best U.S. schools. Instead most Pakistani children attend crowded government-funded public schools.

Pakistan, with 144 million people, does not invest heavily in public education. The country is poor and heavily populated, with as much as a quarter of its government revenue coming from foreign loans and grants, and about half its expenditures going to pay off debts. The government spends heavily to support the military’s costly confrontation with India.

The lack of school spending creates a vacuum met in part by the madrassas, which over the past decade have increased in number to about 7,000, educators say.

Today, all three types of schools in Pakistan convey a critical perspective on the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan that isn’t widely heard in the United States.

Yet some schools are more pro-American than others.

Consider the $500-a-year Beacon House school in Peshawar. Students here aim to attend British and U.S. universities. Second-graders recently clipped out photos and stories from newspapers – images of Sept. 11 attack victims such as a woman caked with dust in World Trade Center wreckage – and pasted them into collages.

“Hell on earth, yes, this was New York,” Faiza Shams wrote on hers.

Students “should know right from wrong exactly. They have to know what is fanaticism,” teacher Khan contends in the hall outside her room.

Principal Humaira Mustafa agrees that students “must know what’s happening.”

“We haven’t been able to recover after the Sept. 11 attacks,” Mustafa said, adding that civil disturbances here closed their school for several days. Children “are scared, they feel insecure. Mothers will call in during street protests asking: “Are you going to close?”

For the majority of Pakistani children, a school with materials for collages and teachers who encourage children with notes saying “wonderful work” isn’t possible.

They attend the more than 150,000 public schools that are financially strained to the point that many teachers work without paper or books. Fifty-seven percent of the population over the age of 15 can’t read and write, and among women the illiteracy rate is about 71 percent. Adding to the problem: education statistics are iffy.

At the government high school in the northwestern town of Chitral recently, principal Amir Zada lamented that he receives only $6,660 a month to run his 15-classroom, 688-student school. Teachers receive $53 a month.

“Not nearly enough,” he said.

And while the practice of teaching in Urdu instead of English is no problem, the difference is “big as that between earth and sky” in how students think of the world, said Mahmood ul-Hasan, a gym teacher waving a short “Soti” switch recently as students enter by 8 a.m. for the morning assembly at the all-boys school.

“The students who study here can only aspire to be clerks,” ul-Hasan continued. Yet commitment is high. Some of the 28 staffers work without pay. Patriots, ul-Hasan calls them.

In the assembly, boys around a concrete courtyard listened to a reading from the Koran, sang the national anthem and recited a prayer “that my life will be a beacon for the rest of the world.”

Then class began. Sitting for his Arabic exam, seventh-grader Sajjad Ahmad pulled a pencil out of a metal case with pictures of fighter jets on the cover. “I want to be a pilot,” Ahmad said. “To spread the name of Pakistan.”

Public schools are free. Teachers say the uniforms help minimize social and economic distinctions.

Yet in many public schools, officials say, teachers don’t show up. Even in the efficient Chitral schools, books are scarce, and students cram three and four to a bench behind rickety desks.

Today more and more parents are inclined to send their children to madrassas funded by Mosque communities. These schools also are free and offer the benefit of meals and dorm rooms for students.

A security chief at one of Pakistan’s largest madrassas at Akora Khattak recently refused to allow a complete visit. This was the madrassa where many of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers studied, including Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Teacher Hameed Jan explained how most of the 4,000 students were gone, preparing for the Ramadan period of fasting. Beyond memorizing the Koran as he has done, Jan said, students learn a little math and English. No military training is conducted here.

Anyone who joins the “jihad against America” goes to holy war on his own, Jan said.

But as a teacher he feels “happy to know they have gone for jihad.”

Last week, Pakistani pro-Taliban forces amassed northwest of Peshawar, preparing to cross into Afghanistan. Jan said students who go there can receive weapons.

“Mohammad has said you must do jihad until doomsday,” he added. “When the land war starts, I will go, too.”