Questions on campus

May 29,2017

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Is Mashal Khan’s brutal mob-killing in Mardan on unfounded allegations of blasphemy a symptom of a disease that has stifled intellectual freedom inPakistani universities?

There is a malaise which occasionally erupts into sores and boils. But its main roots are the structural and managerial flaws. They are driven by religion only in some specific aspects and individual cases.

There are other causes for the ailment. These include the unresolved tensions between the federal Higher Education Commission and the newly-empowered and assertive provincial governments, the proliferation of new universities without a commensurate expansion of qualified faculty, the deficient standards of most public sector colleges and schools that churn out students who are unprepared for the next levels of education, weak governance and the ineffective enforcement of discipline among both staff and students. The last of these factors most tragically enabled the swift, unchecked murder of Mashal Khan.

No-go areas for freedom of speech and research on campuses cover facets of faith, institutions, organisations and gender. In these respects, intellectual freedom, which is the hallmark for universities, does not exist in Pakistan. The country has plenty of company as such freedom does not exist in virtually all other 56 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. It is cold comfort to note that even in certain non-Muslim countries, especially in India, religious and political extremism can frequently assault free speech.

Other than the red list of stay-away subjects, there is considerable scope for freedom of expression, verbal and written. The quality of most research output in the social sciences by academia in Pakistan is below the globally acknowledged standard. However, faculty members and students with unorthodox or comparatively liberal views tend to engage in candid exchanges. Discussions include diametrically opposite definitions of – and perceptions about – secularism, the need to promote respect for pluralism and religious minorities; the military’s dominance in certain spheres; the lack of political governance and the scourge of corruption; the need for gender equity and the increased investment in human resource development and other requisite reforms. Discourse is often robust and lively.

As a visiting professor or guest lecturer at over 25 universities, colleges and higher education and training institutions across the country, I have expressed views which are at variance with those held by religious and political parties. These views were, at times, different from those held by student wings on these campuses. Even when I have stressed the merits of secularism and the wilful mistranslation of the term in textbooks and in the mainstream Urdu mass media to mean ‘atheism’ or ‘godlessness’, there has never been an instance over the past 50 years when I have been heckled or challenged for candidly expressing my views. My frequent references to the need for vigorous ijtihad (the application of new knowledge and experience while remaining Muslim) has also been accepted and even endorsed by most listeners.

In a few instances, I have sensed unease in sections of students and faculty. But not once have I been threatened or prevented from speaking. Surprisingly, I have also been re-invited to speak at the universities again. Sceptics may view the non-disruptive reaction to my utterances as evidence of their innocuousness. I would respectfully disagree. The record speaks for itself. Perhaps YouTube may offer an example or two of the explicitness used to convey thoughts and opinions on subjects which are considered sensitive without causing violent reactions.

Though campuses in Pakistan are not always vibrantly bustling with radically progressive debate and non-violent discourse on controversial themes, interactions between differing perspectives do occur – while abstaining from the restricted zone of subjects cited earlier. A creeping religiosity has steadily advanced into society, even as the realms of entertainment, TV, cinema, and fashion shows prominently project women who do not wear hijabs or burqas. Campuses primarily reflect the conservative rather than modernist trends.

Showy, faith-based piety – which is as cultural as it is religious and seemingly decorative rather than violently destructive – can, however, be occasionally combustible to become suddenly explosive. This fuse is lit by conditions external to campuses, primarily the obscurantism and exclusivism fostered by madressahs and sections of the media (including unlicensed religious TV channels that continue to transmit ideas by obtaining stay orders from high courts against regulatory shut-down orders). There is also a new frenzy in some segments of society to react instantly and violently to suspected instances of blasphemy, signalling a disturbing collective derangement, a general grievance against the Western excesses in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Syria. In at least two verses of the Quran, God reserves the right to hold accountable those who attempt to disparage Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Violent retribution by humans for blasphemy is thus prohibited in Islam.

In this very same Pakistan, in which a religion-linked lynching took place on a university campus, not once in the 10 general elections held in 1970, 1977, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1997, 2002, 2008 and 2013 have the religious political parties secured more than 10 percent of the popular vote. Notwithstanding the list of no-go areas for intellectual freedom, religious and political moderation is often preferred. The killing of Mashal Khan is a shameful aberration, and highlights the need for substantive reforms at universities in Pakistan to accelerate a larger social and progressive renewal.

The writer is a former senator and federal minister.


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