Schools of hope

With the virtual collapse of government schools, many parents have to depend on Wahhabi-funded madra

Martin Amis, typical of the current rash of instant experts on Islam, wrote recently in the Observer: "We may wonder how the Islamists feel when they compare India to Pakistan, one a burgeoning democratic superpower, the other barely distinguishable from a failed state."

Yet the reality on the ground in Pakistan is far more complex than the caricature imagined by the likes of Amis: under the urbane eye of Shaukat Aziz, formerly a vice-president of Citi bank and now Pervez Musharraf's prime minister, Pakistan is enjoying a construction and consumer boom, with growth approaching 8 per cent and the fastest-rising stock market in Asia. It also has better roads and airports, and more reliable electricity than in India. Flying in to Lahore or Islamabad from Delhi or Bombay, one feels immediately that one is in a less poverty-ridden country: there are fewer beggars on the roads, the new motorways and concrete mosques make it more closely resemble a dusty Gulf state than a former part of India, and the houses look more substantial.

There are, however, many areas where Pakistan is doing less well than India: most obviously, the country seems unable to support sustained democratic governance. It has an abysmal human-rights record, a long history of some of the worst governmental corruption in the world, and an increasingly violent Islamist problem.

Yet, despite these awesome difficulties, no problem in Pakistan casts such a long shadow over its future as the abject failure of the government to educate more than a fraction of its own people: at the moment a mere 1.8 per cent of Pakistan's GDP is spent on government schools. The statistics are dreadful: 15 per cent of these government schools are without a proper building; 52 per cent without a boundary wall; 40 per cent without water; 71 per cent without electricity. There is frequent absenteeism of teachers; indeed, many of these schools are empty ruins or exist only on paper.

This was graphically confirmed by a survey conducted two years ago by the former Pakistan cricket captain-turned-politician Imran Khan in his own constituency of Mianwali. His research showed that 20 per cent of government schools supposed to be functioning in his constituency did not exist at all, a quarter had no teachers and 70 per cent were closed. No school had more than half of the teachers it was meant to have. Of those that were just about functioning, many had children of all grades crammed into a single room, often sitting on the floor. There is little wonder that Pakistan ranks among the very lowest countries in the UNDP's world human development index.

This education gap is the most striking way in which Pakistan lags behind its neighbour: in India 65 per cent of the population is literate, and the number rises annually. Only last year, the Indian education system received a substantial boost from state funds; and there is, in any case, a tradition among Hindus of making terrific sacrifices in order to educate children. But in Pakistan the literacy figure is under half (it is currently 49 per cent), and falling: instead of investing in education, Musharraf's military government is spending money on a cripplingly expensive fleet of American F-16s for its air force. As a result, 83 million adults of 15 years and above - out of a population of 160 million - are illiterate. Among women the problem is worse still: 65 per cent of all female adults are illiterate. As the population rockets, the problem will get worse: only half the children in Pakistan will have access to any formal education, and the remaining half will never see the inside of a school. Of those who do enrol, half will drop out in the course of their primary education.

The virtual collapse of government schooling has meant that many of the poorest people who wish to enhance their children's hope of advancing themselves have no option but to place them in the madrasa system, where they are guaranteed an ultra-conservative and outdated but none the less free education, often subsidised by religious endowments provided by the Wahhabi Saudis.

Altogether there are now an estimated 800,000 to one million students enrolled in Pakistan's madrasas: an entire free Islamic education system existing parallel to the increasingly moribund state sector. Though the link between the madrasas and al-Qaeda is often exaggerated - the overwhelming majority of the sophisticated international Salafi jihadis associated with Osama Bin Laden's group are middle-class and were well educated at western-style colleges - it is true that madrasa students have been closely involved in both the rise of the Taliban and the growth of sectarian violence within Pakistan and Afghanistan; it is also true that the education provided by many madrasas is often wholly inadequate to prepare or equip children for modern life in a civil society.

Education within reach

There is, however, one bright glimmer of hope in this depressingly dark situation. In 1995, a group of Karachi-based Pakistani businessmen founded a new charity called The Citizens Foundation, or TCF, with the simple aim of taking Pakistan's children off the streets and providing them with a quality, secular education at heavily subsidised prices. Since then the charity has grown at the most remarkable rate: TCF now has 311 purpose-built schools located in Pakistan's most miserable slums and most underdeveloped rural areas, and a new one opens every single week. Each morning, around 40,000 boys and girls enter the gates of a TCF school somewhere in Pakistan.

The TCF schools I have visited are remarkable: in contrast to the government-run primaries, which usually resemble little more than cattle pens, TCF schools are beautifully planned two-storey structures built in brick, with attractive courtyards and verandas. Each has six classrooms, a library, an art room and washrooms with running water; the secondary schools have, in addition, science and computer rooms. The quality of teaching is surprisingly high, and TCF has its own purpose-built teacher-training institute where the staff - entirely made up of women, in order to encourage parents to enrol their girls - receive a thorough grounding in education. Since it was opened in 1997, more than 2,400 trained teachers have emerged from the institute and taken up positions in TCF schools.

The quality of teaching provided to the children in many cases equals that of Pakistan's smartest private schools; yet the kids who enrol are from the very poorest and most deprived families. Although all children have to pay fees of a minimum of ten Pakistani rupees a month, TCF's adjustable fee structure gives the poorest children access to an education, uniforms and school books at heavily subsidised rates - up to 95 per cent of fees - putting a top-quality edu cation within the reach of the poor for the first time. Already the first batch of graduates from the TCF system has been winning scholarships to Pakistan's leading colleges.

It costs just £10 a month to educate a child at a TCF school; £6,000 will keep an entire school running for a year. TCF is probably the most dynamic, impressive and well-run south Asian charity I have come across in 20 years of writing about the subcontinent. Yet, given Pakistan's now central geopolitical role, and the huge stake that the west has in seeing Pakistan surviving as a moderate and potentially democratic country, it is an NGO that we need to support almost as much out of self-interest as charity.

Donations can be sent to: The Friends of the Citizens Foundation, 9 Camden Road, London E11 2JP. The TCF website is http://www.thecitizensfoundation.org

William Dalrymple will be giving a fundraising lecture for TCF on his new book, "The Last Mughal", at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7, on Thursday 17 May. Tickets cost £15 each and are available online at http://www.ftcf.org.uk

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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