What have we become?

One feature that is common among them is that our education system churns out thousands

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
March 04, 2024
This photograph shows students attending a class at a school on the outskirts of Lahore. — AFP/File

From the murders of Mashal Khan, Priyantha Kumara, Rashid Rehman, Sabeen Mahmud, Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti to the targeting of localities belonging to religious minorities and the attacks and harassment of women in public places, one feature that is common among them is that our education system churns out thousands, if not millions, of dangerous ill-informed people every year.


Our teachers are at risk if they discuss the theory of evolution in class or try to organize a welcome party for first-year students. Our women fall prey to hounds of morality that roam around freely looking for any deviation on the streets. Our children become targets of sexual predators, sometimes losing their lives as well. Incidents of grave desecration are not uncommon and even violations of dead bodies stand parallel with child molestations at seminaries. Are these just aberrations that are becoming a norm?

The complacency with which our successive governments have looked at these horrifying incidents betrays a certain cowardice that has permeated society. This cowardice is about meekly submitting to an increasing level of extremism, masculinity, and patriarchy coupled with excessive religiosity and self-righteousness.

It appears that Pakistani society is just a coin toss away from becoming a bigoted and utterly intolerant crowd. Unless our civil and military bureaucrats, educators of all levels and types, governments from federal to local tiers, and state institutions knuckle down to support a more inclusive, liberal, and permissive system of education, our decline to the abyss will continue.

Instead, all of the above appear glassy-eyed about the mess we are in. They mutter their dissatisfaction in low or barely audible voices and show irritation when somebody points at the mistakes they have been making.

Look at some other Muslim countries from Indonesia and Iran to Turkey and Egypt, you will see a better-than-expected performance at least in the 21st century. No country is an ideal example of tolerance, but their education system is not churning out the likes of what we have been doing relentlessly for nearly eight decades now.

First and foremost is the stress that we put on the sense of duty to our beliefs and ideologies. This misplaced sense of duty is mostly tainted by vanity, which activates heroism and a desire to protect one’s excessive masculinity and belief system. If there has to be a sense of duty it should be towards an active citizenry that is more agreeable and congenial to others.

Instead, what we have in Pakistan is a narrative that aims to promote an ambitious assertion of one’s beliefs and ideologies even if they are not in consonance with modern realities.

Timid college teachers and ‘democrats’ sitting in parliament show a lack of courage and determination to call a spade a spade, lest they risk their lives. Conservative and regressive forces in society have been receiving a shot in the arm every now and then. Those who occupy top positions in the government and state machinery keep reiterating the narrative about our superior sets of beliefs and ideologies that have outlived their utility if ever there was any.

On national days and religious festivals, our leaders address rallies that look more like cult meetings crossed with a vaudeville show.

Most of them have no moral or psychological intentions to inculcate in our young generation a more moderate and realistic outlook in line with the modern-day world. Our decision- and policymakers do not want to foreswear their outmoded narratives of beliefs and ideologies.

Be it a conference, convocation, or seminar for our youth, from ‘chief guests’ and ‘keynote speakers’ to the person presiding over the event, all end up regurgitating the same cliches about how wonderful we are, how upright our conviction is, and how strong our belief system is.

While sleepwalking towards disaster, our mainstream education system from schools and colleges to universities is looking more like a seminary network that overshadows diversity and difference of opinion. In the name of beliefs and ideologies, we have been making blunders that undermine the safety and security of those who dare talk or walk differently.

The Pakistani government needs to rethink its long-standing doctrine that revolves around religion and security. An obsession with these two indirectly promotes inflexibility, intolerance, masculinity, patriarchy, and self-righteousness. Building walls to protect against insecurity and paranoia is not the solution.

We may be able to use technology to repel missile attacks and infiltrations, but the attacks on women, journalists, minorities, or anyone who does not conform to state-sponsored narratives paddled in seminaries and schools are much more alarming. An education system that is preoccupied with beliefs and ideologies has not worked well anywhere in the world, and it is not working in Pakistan.

In fact, it has had a detrimental impact on our youth who turn out to be ambitious but frustrated adults. It has impoverished us intellectually and radicalized society to a menacing degree.

Extremist tendencies are now permeating to ordinary people who are ready to oppress others on the slightest pretext. Bigotry is a serious impediment to harmony and peace in society. While many of our political and religious leaders talk about tolerance, they act in a bigoted manner.

In the past 77 years, Pakistan has not always used force judiciously. It applied unnecessary force to crush freethinking, liberal, nationalist, and secular segments of society who were never a real threat to the country. Faith-based and sectarian outfits received tacit approval resulting in a proliferation of groups masquerading as defenders of faith and Pakistan’s ideology.

What Pakistan needs now is an educational path to creating a moderate state; most of all it is likely to underwrite the security of the country itself. Nearly all successive governments in Pakistan, and the state itself, have eschewed this logic. If any country has a population that is overindulgent in creeds and denominations, it is likely to draw closer to a narrow-minded future.

Pakistan is now just a whisker away from its all-time high religiosity. People should have a right to raise questions of whether the blistering past can ensure a more soothing future.

They should also have a right to follow a different lifestyle, and the state must ensure their safety. If Pakistani politicians, policymakers, and state functionaries keep sharing the same preoccupation with their beliefs and ideologies that may or may not be in the best interest of all the people living on this land, the future will remain bleak.

They should be more concerned about how to make our youth intellectually richer so that the route to harmony looks brighter. The same rhetoric will keep producing the same results which are daunting.

Pakistan, like all other countries in the world, needs to accept diversity and teach its people to do the same, and we cannot do this by choosing to bank on beliefs and ideologies. The country and its people should open up to flows of ideas but alas most of our politicians and top office holders envision Pakistan based on medieval ideas.

Our education system must stop churning out dangerous ill-informed people who keep radicalizing the society we live in. The use of more heroic language is not going to help; we must galvanize intellect more than ideologies.

Our youth is getting angry and frustrated. The way to reduced anger and frustration lies in a more permissive society both intellectually and socially. I ask you to stop table-thumping, but is my message getting through?

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: mnazir1964yahoo.co.uk