The war on teachers

Dawn, July 15, 2014

By Rafia Zakaria

The Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram has not just been busy abducting schoolgirls and taking them hostage. It has also been attacking teachers. According to the latest report published by the Global Coalition for the Protection of Education (GCPEA), the group has been responsible for the killing of 171 teachers since 2009.

Boko Haram is not the only group targeting teachers; in the past five years teachers in 23 countries have been harassed, detained, subjected to extortion and killed. The reasons for their targeting vary from anger at them for preventing students from being recruited as child soldiers, to the inclusion of girls in the classroom, to their ethnicity or religious identity.

Unesco studies and other previously issued reports list Pakistan, along with Colombia, Nepal, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Thailand, as among the countries in which teachers are most affected by violence targeting them.

The targeting of teachers is an element of deliberate anti-intellectualism.

In several cases from Thailand and Nepal, the issue has been the content of the curriculum. In southern Thailand, the GCPEA report says: “The curriculum imposes the Thai language and narrative on the local population whose ethnic identity has different historical roots.” As a result, ethnic Muslim Malay separatists have targeted Buddhist teachers and in some cases killed them.

The problem in Nepal also has roots in identity and the curriculum’s content. There, during the Maoist insurgency, teachers were kidnapped and subjected to indoctrination camps so that they would stop teaching Sanskrit (which the rebels viewed as the language of the elite and of a corrupt monarchy) and begin imparting Maoist ideology instead.

A report produced by GCPEA earlier this year recorded over 800 attacks on schools in Pakistan, between 2009 and 2012. With the increase in violence that Pakistan has experienced since 2012, it is likely that the number now is considerably more. In some of these attacks, children, teachers and other school personnel were injured and schools themselves were destroyed or severely harmed.

The attacks were not simply the ones we are used to hearing about, conducted by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan or limited to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its environs. In recent years and months, numerous Shia scholars and other university personnel have been gunned down in targeted attacks.

In addition to attacks on schools, skirmishes, riots, and bomb blasts on university campuses have made the latter dangerous places, where ideological contention has become militant and can easily lead to the loss of life. Women and girls attending these university campuses have been further imperilled by the presence of armed groups of various affiliations.

In previous years, reports like those produced by the GCPEA have been looked at, digested and forgotten. As mentioned in many analyses of the issue, in a conflict environment, where everyone faces constant danger, the predicament of one group cannot lay claim to any particular store of empathy.

At the same time, it is not simply the sore lack of sympathy for victims that has been responsible for inaction on this issue in the Pakistani context.

As the incidents highlighted in the report indicate, the attacks on teachers in many cases are not simply the selection of soft targets by groups wishing to attack anything and everything for the purpose of spreading terror. As seen in Thailand and Nepal, these are more complex calculations, the product of an opposition to the type of knowledge that is being disseminated and the populations to which this knowledge is being imparted.

Given this, the first and foremost myth that must be dispelled in order to take action against the war on teachers is the idea that the attack on education is simply a tactic utilised by the barbaric and uneducated.

Imagining the targeting of schools as a disagreement between those in favour of and those against education, something solved by the simple rebuilding of schools, misses the epistemological basis of the conflict. Instead, the targeting of teachers is an element of deliberate anti-intellectualism and a protest against the way knowledge is organised in these particular institutional settings.

Under this lens, science and math, language and literature are all seen as departures from a theistic worldview, where faith lies at the centre and everything else is subordinate to it.

The small school burned in Khuzdar or Miramshah, the university building bombed in Peshawar, is hence a protest against the organisation of knowledge seen as a departure from the imagined authenticity of a faith-based education. Teachers, perceived as instruments of this corrosive worldview, are imagined as legitimate targets; for as long as they exist the poison will continue to flow into the impressionable minds of the next generation.

The war, then, is a war of the intellect, and among its tragedies is the fact that it is almost exclusively being fought with bombs. In our current moment of national solidarity, a Pakistan exhausted and overwhelmed with wave after wave of violence hopes that extermination is militarily possible.

It is the belief of difficult times, brought on by the idea that if only those who disagree, who kill and maim and bomb, could be done away with, then the peaceful, the willing, and those hungering for education can be saved.

It is this ‘solution’ that is unsophisticated in its refusal to acknowledge the basis from which the dispute arises. With the closing of minds, the possibility of debate has become, if not impossible, then minimal.

Yet without debate, Pakistanis, as they witness the war on teachers, cannot resolve the conflict that is eliminating them — the debate on whose knowledge, organised in which way, and allowing which questions, is both permissible and possible.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.