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War against bigotry

November 14, 2011

A WEEK ago, three Hindu doctors were gunned down in Shikarpur. While the details of the incident remain unclear, the discriminatory aspect of the killings cannot be denied.

The Eid day violence followed the release of a report in September by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which documents how minorities in Balochistan, particularly Hindus, are increasingly being kidnapped for ransom, forced to convert to Islam, and persecuted to such an extent that Hindu families fear sending their children to school.

In this context, it is not surprising that a recent study by the Pew Research Centre Forum on Religion and Public Life ranked Pakistan as the third-least tolerant country in the world in terms of social acceptance of religious diversity.

The reasons for heightened intolerance and violence towards religious minorities are multifaceted and well known.

The findings of an HRCP working group in April identified many of these: non-implementation of human rights laws; failure to prosecute those who discriminate against minorities; the proliferation of hate speech in the media and in mosques and other public spaces; the persistence and prejudiced application of discriminatory laws such as the blasphemy law; inadequate minority representation in parliament; the impotence of the National Commission for Minorities; biased and inaccurate content about minority communities in the national school curriculum, and more.

Two days after the Shikarpur incident, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report considering one of these reasons in detail. Connecting the Dots: Education and Religious Discrimination in Pakistan examines how social studies, Islamiat and Urdu textbooks used both in Pakistan’s public school and madressah systems encourage prejudices against religious minorities. As part of the study, the International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy and the Pakistani think tank Sustainable Development Policy Institute reviewed more than 100 textbooks from classes one to 10 of Pakistan’s four provinces. Additionally, 277 students and teachers at 37 public schools and 226 students and teachers at 19 madressahs were interviewed.

This study shows that intolerant and prejudiced references to religious minorities, especially Hindus, are rife — and not only in Islamiat textbooks, but also in social studies and other texts. According to the study, religious minorities are often portrayed as second-class citizens who should be grateful to Pakistani Muslims for affording them limited rights. Hindus, with some exceptions, are portrayed as the enemies of Pakistan and Islam. Their culture is described as unjust and cruel in comparison with Islamic culture, which is understood to be fair and brotherly. The greatest curricular travesty occurs in the form of omission or historical distortion: there are few mentions of how non-Muslims have contributed to the formation and development of Pakistan and its culture. Interviews also revealed that more than 80 per cent of public school teachers view non-Muslims as ‘enemies of Islam’ to varying degrees.

Interestingly, all of the madressah teachers interviewed for the study correctly identified religious minorities as being citizens of Pakistan (as opposed to only 60 per cent of government school teachers who were able to do so). Madressah teachers were also often more informed about other religions and expressed tolerance for minority beliefs. Still, the study found that madressah textbooks generally portray non-Muslims as either kafirs (infidels), dhimmis (non-Muslims under Islamic rule) or murtids (apostates) — labels that can hardly be expected to promote a tolerant and cohesive society.

The findings and recommendations of the USCIRF study (and several others that have preceded it, and are duly cited therein) are significant because, if acted on, they could effect genuine change. In recent years, politicians have paid lip service to minority rights: the PPP established a ministry for minority affairs; Imran Khan swore to champion minority rights during his Oct 30 rally in Lahore. No tangible policies have accompanied the political rhetoric, however, and the plight of non-Muslims in Pakistan is worsening.

The assassination of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer demonstrated that the blasphemy law won’t be repealed without a major political battle staged by the bravest souls. But piecemeal curriculum reform — which has been initiated, and which is supported by ready funding from international donors — can be enacted by even the flimsiest, non-committal politician.

The momentum to facilitate this change already exists: the National Education Policy 2009 stipulates that minorities should receive equal educational opportunities and that textual materials should not contain controversial or offensive content against them. Curricular reform efforts initiated in 2006 have, according to the USCIRF report, “made significant progress towards eliminating biases, historical revisionism and religious exclusivity”.

The new curriculum for classes six to eight, for example, substitutes history for social studies and includes two chapters (out of 15) on the pre-Islamic history of the subcontinent. Other textbooks promote tolerance, avoid gratuitous criticism of India and emphasise respect for diversity. Unfortunately, six years after these changes were drafted, revised textbooks incorporating the new material have yet to go to print.

Pushing through a curriculum reform process that is already under way (though by no means perfect) is far easier than setting out to change a hateful society’s mindset. Political leaders seeking to stem the problem of pervasive and violent intolerance should therefore consider the publication of tolerant textbooks a good place to start the long war against bigotry.

An initial policy mandate of big-promise politicians should be to promote the full implementation of the 2006 reform process (which, the USCIRF report recommends, includes the removal of derogatory content and the inclusion of content relating to the positive contributions of religious minorities to Pakistan).

This effort may not instantly elevate the status of religious minorities to their rightful position as protected, equal citizens of Pakistan. But it will begin the slow purge of hateful and misguided ideas from the public sphere.

The writer is a freelance journalist.