Of curriculums and campuses

PTI’s reasons for travelling the same road as Ziaul Haq merit questioning

In 1978 General Zia set about bringing Islam to a predominantly Muslim populace. His success may be measured by the fact that forty years after his death, his agenda is still being promoted.

This is borne out by the recently passed Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (Amendment) Bill 2020 that grants vetting power to the Muttahida Ulema Board of the Punjab over all school texts and curriculum and includes subjects, such as history, Pakistan studies, Urdu, literature and “any other subject material related to religion”; the Punjab gdecision to make Quran classes mandatory at the university level, and the Punjab Assembly’s decision to ban all books that do not maintain Pakistan’s official version of Islam. PTI’s reasons for travelling the same road as Zia merit questioning.

Zia’s decision to Islamise Pakistan was not taken gratuitously. He had usurped power from an elected government and was aware of the need to legitimise and consolidate his rule. The bid to Islamise the nation was a means to this end. It had little to do with love of Islam or his desire to strengthen the moral fibre of the nation. Indeed, moral fibre was the last thing he wanted.

The late 1970s had seen the advent of USA’s proxy war in Afghanistan and western media was rife with images of the brave Afghan Mujahid pitted against the godless USSR. It was also the time when, threatened by Iran’s growing prominence under Khomeini, Saudi Arabia was pushing its ideological frontiers through Wahabi Islam.

As an ally and cat’s paw in the Afghanistan war, Pakistan’s military government had much to gain by pursuing the Islamic agenda. Aid began to flow in: military hardware from the US and money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf for madrassas as carriers of Wahabi ideology; as producers of human cannon fodder for the battle front and as breeders of the Taliban and future theatres of war.

The need of the hour was a compliant nation and to divert attention from the people’s demand for a return to democracy. Not an easy task in a pluralist society with a tendency to jib at unwelcome authority. Zia knew that seizure of state power was not enough to secure the interests of his unelected government; the battle for dominance had to be waged on other fronts.

In the realms of religion and morality and in the intangible areas of customs, manners and the language of everyday speech. His aim was to promote an ethos conducive to a singular religion-based nationalism. Islam was the tool at hand – and education a means to operationalise it. Non- Muslim populations and women were both counters and easy targets in this game. The former to demonise difference; the latter as markers and symbols of the new religio-national morality.

The steps taken in the ensuing battle over symbols and signs were aggressive and upfront. The portfolio for education was handed over to the Jamaat-i-Islami; Islamiat, was made a compulsory school subject for all classes and passing the matriculation Islamiat exam a condition for university admission.

Combined with a rote-learning pedagogy and book-based exams, school learning became a farce where students were marked on rote-learned guide-book answers. This killed intellectual curiosity.

Non-Muslims were given the choice between Islamiat and Ethics, but as to date, none of the Provincial Boards have produced any book on ethics, nor has provision been made for ethics teachers, this was, and remains a sleight of hand.

A blatant violation of the right to freedom of religion and belief, this decision transformed classrooms into spaces of verbal violence and abuse where teachers and students were free to insult other faiths and subject non-Muslim children to discriminatory behaviour.

School texts were overhauled to foreground religion at the expense of subject-specific information in social and natural science texts. Combined with a rote-learning pedagogy and book-based exams, school learning became a farce where students were marked on rote-learned guidebook answers. This killed intellectual curiosity and left little room for cognitive growth and critical thinking.

Incidentally, it also facilitated cheating as the most favoured method for passing exams. At the same time, madrassa education was granted equivalence and placed on par with a regular BA degree. This enabled the induction of madrassa graduates in different professions and government departments and effectively seeded the system with supporters of Zia’s agenda.

Alongside this, student unions were banned and college and university campuses handed to the JUI, the student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami. In one fell swoop, this shut the door to freedom of expression and opinion, deprived students of their right to unionise and unleashed a reign of JUI terror on them and faculty alike.

The extent and nature of the Jamiat’s power may be exemplified by a post graduate Punjab University student in 1988, who triumphantly proclaimed, “Now we tell the teachers what they can teach and what they cannot teach!” This new ethos highlighted public piety, policed student activities, promoted gender-based segregation and was anathema on beliefs and ideas that did not fit in with the Jamiat’s version of Islam. Not surprisingly, there was a significant drop in the quality and standard of education and a rise in intolerance and campus violence.

The Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (Amendment) Bill 2020 and the book ban order were passed unanimously by the Punjab Assembly; the Punjab governor’s order to intitutionalise compulsory Quran classes in all universities was initiated and supported by the vice chancellors of Government College University, The Punjab University and Lahore College University for Women among others.

These decisions bear an ominous resemblance to Zia’s time and have the same potential for lowering educational standards and breeding intolerance. Previous interventions and social media provide clear insights into the knowledge base of our ulema.

Will education now be predicated on the science vs faith binary and children taught that the sun rotates around a static earth? Will the constitutional right to freedom of faith and belief be further subverted and universities given over to contentious debate and Jamiat-type terror?

The ethics option has already been exposed. With post-Covid cuts in the new education budget there is no reason to believe it will be different now. What a fall from the time of academics and educationists of intellectual and moral integrity who introduced new disciplines and widened the horizons of knowledge through free exchange of ideas and information and enable colleges and universities to become places of learning and intellectual growth.

Zia had his reasons for shutting the doors of knowledge on the people of Pakistan. What reasons does the present government have for doing the same? Is it the fear of difference of opinion? A bid to undermine the pluralism of a culturally diverse society and re-centralize power? Or an attempt to divert attention from its own inept governance?

These questions are open to debate. In the meantime, whether by habit or conscious choice, with their eyes on the main chance, beguiled by their own rhetoric; ministers of state, parliamentarians, bureaucrats, academics and educationists are pushing the coming generations further into the darkness of obscurantist ignorance.

Of curriculums and campuses: PTI’s reasons for travelling the same road as Ziaul Haq merit questioning