On December 16, the 145 victims of the Army Public School attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, bore the burden of their nation’s failures and paid for them with their lives. The survivors that day witnessed the unthinkable, and lost their childhoods.
I went to school in Pakistan too, but it was a different country, one where children could still be children. Yet the seeds of today’s Pakistan had already been sown by the time I was in elementary school. This was the end of General Zia’s time—a man who ruthlessly Islamized the country beyond recognition, changing laws and curricula, restricting freedoms and transforming society.
After the horror in Peshawar, we have seen Pakistanis unite, at least for now—against the Taliban (TTP), who took responsibility for the attack in Peshawar, and who have killed tens of thousands of their fellow citizens over the last decade. The country is also united against Taliban apologists, such as the radical cleric Abdul Aziz of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, who refused to condemn the TTP until forced by days of protest to do so.
But until the attack in Peshawar, Pakistan’s media, its leaders and ordinary citizens shied away from naming terrorists and terrorist groups, refused to acknowledge their identity and instead pointed fingers at the U.S. and India for creating havoc in the country. This obfuscation and denial has allowed militants to garner sympathy, to survive and to operate freely.
For the last year and a half, with support from a U.S. Institute of Peace research grant, I have visited public and private schools following the official curriculum in Pakistan, attending classes and talking with high school students and teachers. I asked students about what they thought was causing terrorism in Pakistan.
The majority of them said that “foreign influences”—the United States and India, and sometimes Israel—were responsible. Some of these students gave a straight up conspiracy theory version of this argument, that these countries wanted to destroy Pakistan, and so they trained or funded or even sent terrorists into Pakistan. They said that it was impossible that Muslims could be responsible for killing other Muslims.