Across the border

As the world wakes up to educated Islamic militants, Pakistan needs to secularise learning

Thousands of young minds going to schools and colleges are taught to celebrate Islamic superiority and nationalism.

It was the second day of Eid and I had traveled with my companion, Iqbal Qaiser, to the village of Makhdoom Pur Pahuran, almost halfway between Lahore and Multan.

We were in search of a gurudwara, the premises of which were now being used for a government school. The wooden door of the school was looked. After much effort, we located the guard and requested him to lead us to the gurudwara.

There were two missiles at the entrance of the school, named Abdali and Ghori, on the nuclear warheads that the Pakistani establishment boasts. Before us was the main gurudwara, raised on the spot where Guru Nanak, hailed as the founder of Sikhism, preached his message of peace and tolerance.

This now housed the office of the principal. There was a Quranic verse on the forehead of the building, extolling the significance of education. The boundary wall going all around the school was filled with the 99 names of Allah and other verses from the Quran in calligraphy. A section of another wall was dedicated to Muslim scientists.

Education and religion

Every day, young and impressionable children come to this and thousands of other such schools spread across the country. Here, they are indoctrinated with propaganda about Islamic superiority and nationalism, premised upon half-baked historical facts.

In textbooks across Pakistan, historical Islamic characters are depicted as legendary figures who challenged the demonic rajas or kings of India. Tales of Muhammad Bin Qasim, Muhammad Ghori, Mahmud Ghaznvi, and Ahmad Shah Abdali are taught to Pakistani students in subjects as varied as Urdu, Islamiyat, and Pakistan Studies. Last year, it was reported that some Quranic verses were also included in chemistry textbook.

The situation is not much better in private schools. A few years ago, while I was working in one of the country’s leading private schools of the country I noticed similar propaganda all over its premises. One board was dedicated to Islamic heroes, which included all the aforementioned invaders. Devoid of their political contexts and character traits, they were presented as Islamic warriors fighting for the cause of Allah.

Another board proclaimed the benefits of fasting and prayer and said it is alright to beat up young children if they do not fulfill their Islamic duties.

This indoctrination continues into colleges and universities. According to the laws of the country, all students have to be taught Pakistan Studies – roughly, the history, geography, politics culture and demography of the country – and Islamiyat in school as well as college. This rule applies to public as well as private institutions and the only exceptions are non-Muslim students, who can opt for civics instead of Islamiyat.

However, many members of minority religions whom I spoke to said they prefer to study Islamiyat over civics. This is because there have been complaints of discrimination during college admissions against students who have not taken Islamiyat. Others assert that in an Islamic society where the threat of the blasphemy law looms large, many minorities like to acquaint themselves with Islam so that they don’t unconsciously offend the sensibilities of Muslims.

Recently, I interacted with a Hindu student from Tharparkar, in the Sindh province, residing in Islamabad who spoke of how Hindus in Pakistan are expected to respect the sensibilities of Muslims, but the reverse does not hold.

In all government universities, bonus points are awarded to students who are Hafiz-e-Quran – that is, they have learned the Quran by heart. No such benefit exists for non-Muslim students with respect to their religious knowledge.

Shaping minds

Over the years, universities and colleges churn out Islamised students who go on to form the new breed of professors and administrators that mould the curriculum and the atmosphere of the universities according to their moral standards.

Recently, the University of Sargodha banned boys and girls from sitting together anywhere on the campus. A notification from the university stated that they may sit together only in groups of three or more. Similarly, the University of Swat had issued a notification disallowing students from sitting or walking with the opposite sex inside and outside the campus. The notice was later withdrawn.

At Punjab University in Lahore, one of the largest universities in the country, the Jamiat-e-talaba, the student wing of religio-political party Jamaat-i-Islami that is known for its sympathy to Islamic militants, has maintained a stronghold for nearly three decades now. Roaming around the campus, their cadre ensures that the so-called Islamic environment of the university is upheld. Several private universities in Pakistan have also boasted of the Islamisation of their environment.

Silencing rebellion

Some student groups and liberal professors have tried to fight back and reclaim secular spaces but the threat of the blasphemy law has quickly silenced these voices.

For example, in 2013, young and talented Fulbright scholar Junaid Hafeez was fired from Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, the largest university in Pakistan’s southern Punjab region, where he was teaching English literature. Later, a case of blasphemy was filed against him for alleged remarks that he made on campus and through a Facebook page. He is still languishing in jail as several lawyers who have represented him over the years have received death threats. The case has received international attention for its seeming curbs on free speech and as an example of justice being waylaid.

In 2014, Rashid Rehman, the renowned human rights lawyer who was representing him, was shot dead in his office for taking up his case.

In the midst of all this, the government is now contemplating making Quranic education compulsory up to Class 10.

Growth of educated militants

It is in this environment that the Pakistani education system is increasingly producing students who are sympathetic to Islamic militants, who too espouse a puritanical version of Islam similar to what is taught to these students through their formal education.

It is surprising, then, that the government expresses shock when it comes across people like Saad Aziz, who was convicted for killing human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud and perpetrating the 2015 attack on a bus near Safoora Goth, Karachi, which killed at least 43 members of an Ismaili sect. Aziz was highly educated – he graduated from the prestigious Institute of Business Administration in Pakistan.

The July 1 Bangladesh attacks, in which at least 20 were killed after being held hostage at the upmarket Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, were also carried out by youngsters who had studied at the country’s elite schools and universities of the country.

Only after these recent incidents have experts started challenging the connection between poverty and militancy. The focus now needs to shift to the education system of societies that are producing such students. The Pakistani education is premised on the concept of Muslim nationalism and the superiority of Islam – ideas that align perfectly with the ideologies of Islamic militants. How can these societies then expect to battle Islamic militancy?

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

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