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January 13, 2018

Getting education right


January 13, 2018

If there is any antidote to violence and extremism in our society, it is education. If there is any cure for child abuse it has to be education. If you seek to prevent sex crimes against women, you have to start from education. And finally, if you want to make your society more tolerant and harmonious, the only long-term solution is education.

But what if it is the educated people who have become more violent and extremist? What do you do, when child abusers turn out to not necessarily be uneducated and most misogynists turn out to be degree holders? Well, you ask a simple question: what do we understand by education? This is the question addressed in ‘Education for Peace and Harmony’, the latest report launched by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), in Islamabad on January 11.

Its findings and recommendations are worth sharing with a wider readership because in our mainstream media such basic issues are seldom raised. Most of our electronic and print media, especially in Urdu, are more concerned about the symptoms rather than the diagnosis and cure, Education for Peace and Harmony deals with both.

The report begins by highlighting that critical thinking and the acceptance of diversity of opinion can infuse harmony in society. There is a need to make education curricula and teaching more inclusive so that teachers and students are sensitised about differences in culture, ethnicity, religion and sects. Teachers especially need to learn how the contents of our curricula are promoting discrimination. The report is a result of intellectual discussions held with around 350 faculty members of public-sector colleges and universities.

These discussions were led by some of the leading scholars, educationists, and journalists such as Peter Jacob, Qazi Javed, Hussain Naqqi, Rashad Bukhari, Ismail Khan, Mosharraf Zaidi, Dr Jaffar Ahmed, Ghazi Salahuddin, Wusutullah Khan, Amir Rana, Khalida Ghaus, and Dr AH Nayyar. The main crux of these discussions was to explore how education can contribute to promoting social harmony in Pakistan. Interestingly, according to the report, most participants agreed that education and curricula in Pakistan have negatively impacted the society, and the impact has been felt through both violent and non-violent extremism.

There is a noticeable similarity between the worldview of extremists and the mental and intellectual outlook that students gather from the education system in Pakistan. That persecution and exclusion is rampant in society is not difficult to understand; what is not clear to many is the fact that if curricula sanctioned by the state promotes religious and sectarian mindsets then the outcome is not going to be any different. The state of Pakistan, since its inception, especially since 1977, has condoned exclusion and persecution of ethnic, religious and sectarian minorities.

There is now a lot of talk about countering extremism and promoting harmony; but how on earth can that be achieved if not on the educational front. Our education system – right from the elementary to the tertiary levels – reeks of extreme polarisation, hitherto promoted by the state itself. One example is the sanctioning of five different madressah boards that run thousands of seminaries across Pakistan. All religious leaders claim they don’t believe in sectarianism; if that really is the case, then why was there a need to establish five different sect-based madressah boards? Why couldn’t they just agree on one religious syllabus under the umbrella of one board?

Even then, any discussion about secularism is frowned upon and even well-known academicians, journalists and scholars try to equate secularism with atheism. Such a blatant distortion of terms has rendered any meaningful discussion all but impossible. If you try to explain that secularism is about the separation of state and religion, you get couplets of Iqbal lamenting how that would result in barbaSrism. If our recent history is any guide, it is the opposite that has happened – the more religiosity and sectarianism was taught at the cost of secular and liberal ideas, the more intolerant society became.

The state must not take sides in favour of one or the other sect or religion. It should rather behave as a conscientious doctor who should be least concerned about the ethnic group, religion, or sect of the people it is treating. When you perch yourself above any parochial considerations, you are secular in a political and social sense. You may follow any religion or sect you like but not at the expense of others.

Education should be more concerned about inculcating an ability to listen and to come out of one’s own pigeonhole. The existing educational structure does not afford this flexibility. This has resulted in deplorable incidents such as the outburst of Captain Safdar in parliament, and the on-campus murders of students such as Mashal Khan who speak up or raise questions. It is this similar intolerance that is evident when human rights activists, journalists and even those who talk of peace with other countries are abducted, killed, tortured, and maimed.

Even the chief justice talks about one uniform education system for all. Well, why not start with dissolving the five sectarian madressah boards? The chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has no qualms about announcing Rs300 million for a sectarian seminary led by a man who claims to be the father of the Taliban. The same KP government announces a monthly stipend for prayer leaders of selected mosques. Who selects these mosques and prayer leaders to be paid from the provincial exchequer? And then you have federal ministers who are interested in introducing more religiosity in the curricula rather than reducing it.

All these are misguided decisions and policies based on a skewed sense of society. You can’t promote social harmony unless the state decides that enough is enough and that it is time to abandon the religious rhetoric and ostentatious display of piety. We have to realise that talking about harmony and then following a policy of appeasement with the most bigoted and prejudiced segments of society is self-deception at best and self-destruction at worst.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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