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Religious prejudice

November 11, 2011

WHILE there can be little doubt that Pakistan's religious minorities face discrimination, it is possible to read too much into the recent study Connecting the Dots: Education and Religious Discrimination in Pakistan. Sponsored by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the study concludes that many textbooks foster intolerance against religious minorities, particularly against the Hindu community. As a result of this “teaching discrimination”, the likelihood increases that violent religious extremism will continue to grow in the country, weakening religious freedom in the process. Yet given the relatively small scope of the study — 107 textbooks reviewed, 277 students and teachers from 37 public schools and 226 students and teachers from 19 madressahs interviewed — it appears too sweeping a definition of teaching practices in thousands of schools and madressahs across the country.

That said, however, the findings should serve as a wake-up call when we consider the many ways in which religious prejudice is implanted in the minds of youngsters. The emphatic conclusion of the study would suggest that fostering religious intolerance through textbooks is a systematic move, underpinned by malicious intent. No doubt, there was much mischief done during Gen Zia's regime. But in recent years, guidelines have been provided for revising textbooks — even though we are not sure how far these have been implemented to remove the biases that many books still contain. It is far more likely that the attitudes evident in the books, and testified to by the interviewees, are inadvertent betrayals of a parallel societal prejudice that has seeped into every aspect of public life. Over the years Pakistani discourse vis-à-vis minority communities has grown more discriminatory — and increasingly violent. The prejudice is to some extent rooted in historical circumstance and its portrayal is stoked by a societal psyche where the perception of the 'other' is suspect in the eyes of the majority and exploited by religious extremists. This being the case, Pakistanis need to turn their gaze inwards. It was her compatriots' refusal to drink water offered by a Christian, after all, that led to Aasia Bibi being charged and sentenced for blasphemy.