Pakistan’s leaders claim to be turning over a new leaf

Apr 11, 2019

DOZENS OF BOYS sit in rows on the carpet, hunched over open books, reciting a passage over and over. As skullcaps bob rhythmically, childish voices evoke the cacophony of an aviary. Reading and reciting the Koran are all this school teaches, and may be all the education these boys get.

During last year’s election campaign, Imran Khan, a former cricket star who is now prime minister, promised a naya or “new” Pakistan. The scene at this madrasa, perched on a pine-forested ridge 100km north of Islamabad, the capital, provides a hint of how tenacious the old Pakistan remains. There are more than 30,000 madrasas like this one, with perhaps 2.5m pupils enrolled. Many of the students are boarders whose poor, illiterate parents give them up for long periods to the religious charities that run such schools. They graduate with strong opinions, but few skills.

That will all change, says Mr Khan’s team. Soon, insists his minister of education, the religious schools will have to teach a broader range of subjects to gain government accreditation. Eventually, a single national curriculum will be imposed. The army, which is widely seen as the power behind the throne and has often appeared indulgent to religious extremism, supports education reform. Its own growing network of fee-paying schools is heavy on...

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