Can de-radicalisation be taught at school?

A Pakistani orphanage aims to steer children away from extremism

Until recently, Fazal Akbar survived by begging on the streets of the Pakistani city of Peshawar after his mother died of cancer and his father was killed in a suicide bombing. Now, he lives and learns at a new government facility that aims to save children from being recruited by militant groups.

“My dream is to become a doctor as I want to serve the people who are injured or maimed in bomb blasts and militant attacks,” said 12-year-old Akbar.

It’s a dream that could become a reality since he and his two younger brothers became students two months ago at Zamung Kor, which translates as “My Home”. They are among the first 40 students at the facility – the first of its kind run by the government – which was inaugurated in November and will house as many as 1,000 boys by the end of the year.

The boys chosen to attend Zamung Kor will be among Pakistan’s most vulnerable children – those who became orphans due to conflict and others from poor families who are forced to work or beg on the streets. Such children have increasingly become victims of militant groups.

A 2012 report by UNICEF found that children, including girls, were being recruited as suicide bombers in Pakistan. In 2009, Save the Children and the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child found that children were increasingly being recruited as suicide bombers and indoctrinated as fighters in unregulated madrassas, or Islamic schools.

It is precisely that kind of exploitation and victimisation of children that led the government to create Zamung Kor.

“We now want to save our future generation especially children orphaned by the war from landing into hands of the militants,” said Muhammad Naeem, the project director. “The de-radicalisation efforts will definitely take time but we’re hopeful to achieve the goal with help of education.”

Zamung Kor offers a package of both secular and religious education at a large compound on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Peshawar.  There is a small mosque on the premises, as well as a computer lab, a library, gymnasium and dorm rooms.

“Children here are taught biological sciences, computer [skills], drawing and English to broaden their observation and knowledge about the world,” said Naeem. “We also teach them verses from the Koran, which encourage peace, harmony and love in the society.”

In contrast, he said, some madrassas in the area teach children “hatred against non-Muslims”. Yet, many poor families send their children to such schools because they provide free classes and lodging, while there are not enough government schools.

In 2009, there were at least 12 million Pakistani children in about 76,000 private institutions, according to the joint report by Save the Children and the SPRC. Yet, the government had no mechanism to oversee teaching standards, curriculums or fees charged.

“The state has no control over these private schools, including” madrassas, the report concluded.

Fighting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan has also disrupted classes and destroyed schools. Many of those that still function are overwhelmed by too many students.

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Militant groups have also targeted schools directly. According to the Global Terrorism Database, which is run by the University of Maryland, more than 850 educational institutions were attacked in Pakistan between 1970 and 2014, killing at least 450 people.

To protect it from being attacked, Zamung Kor is surrounded by an 11-foot high wall with razor wire and security cameras along the top.

Akbar hopes the precautions are unnecessary.

“I don’t want to see anybody lose his friends or other close relatives in bomb blasts like I did,” he said.

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