The increase in violence in Pakistan is believed to have its roots in religious extremism, which is often tied to the conservative madrassas (religious schools). The same madrassas are also accused of using religious texts to radicalise their students. This may explain why most madrassa students are often found advocating for, or resorting to, violence. However, this does not explain why others who attend mainstream colleges and universities are equally radicalised and willing to subscribe to religion-inspired violence.
Since September 2001 the world’s attention has been focused on religious fundamentalism in South Asia. Also in 2001, Ahmad Rashid’s seminal book on the Taliban brought additional interest to the seminaries (madrassas) in Pakistan that had graduated several Taliban leaders. The correlation between the religiously-motivated militancy in Afghanistan, Pakistan (AfPak) and madrassas led many to believe that there exists a causal relationship between the two and that madrassas alone are responsible for propagating extremist views. This understanding led to the birth of a growth industry of madrassa curriculum reform, which further channeled huge sums of money to the same archaic institutions, thus empowering them even more.
The assumption that madrassas alone are responsible for propagating extremist views is without merit and hence most such interventions to reform madrassas’ curricula, which have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to tax payers in the west, have miserably failed in producing any noticeable decline in extremist beliefs in AfPak.
While madrassas do have a pivotal role in propagating extremist religious ideologies, they are however not alone in this endeavor. I would argue that decades of religious/sectarian conditioning, which was adopted as a state policy under general Zia, has been so pervasive over the past three decades that it has led to a stage where most Pakistanis have become fundamentalists by default. I suggest this proposition primarily because I see no discernible difference in the extremist views of a madrassa graduate and that of an alumnus of a university or a professional school.
The curricula in madrassas and universities across Pakistan indeed push students to religious fundamentalism. However, the mass adoption of the religious fundamentalist narrative by the society at large has pushed the so-called silent majority into the same corner of sectarian fanaticism where the violent, vocal minority has thrived.
A recent comparative study of curricula and attitudes of students and teachers at religious and mainstream public schools revealed that public schools were no different from what was observed at the religiously conservative madrassas.* In fact, in some instances madrassa students were more considerate of minority rights than their counterparts in public schools. The study revealed that a “large per centage of public school teachers teach their students to be tolerant of faiths other than the dominant Sunni Islam, with much of that tolerance driven by a desire to inspire conversions to Islam... At the same time, while largely resistant to non-Muslims and their role in society, madrassa teachers and students were aware of Quranic passages encouraging them to treat non-Muslims with kindness and understanding.”
Furthermore, while madrassa students were sensitised to a more nuanced definition of Jihad (including the struggle with one’s own self) their counterparts in public schools viewed Jihad only in the context of an armed struggle.
The study also calls attention to the blatant violations of Article 22 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which guarantees that students attending any educational institution may not be forced to receive religious education other than the student’s own religion. Similarly, students cannot be asked to participate in religious practices or ceremonies that are not sanctioned by their own religion. In schools and colleges across Pakistan religious minorities are either forced to take Islamic studies or are offered no course substitution for Islamic studies.
When it comes to Ahmadi students, the state and society tolerates deliberate violations of their fundamental human rights. It was only in September 2011 when two schools in Dharinwala village in Faisalabad expelled 10 Ahmadi students for their religious beliefs. Earlier in 2008, 23 Ahmadi students were expelled from a Medical College in Faisalabad. In both instances, Ahmadi students were forced to beg for admissions elsewhere while the government did precious little to safeguard their rights enshrined in the Constitution. Again, these academic institutions were supposed to be secular, but they acted more radically than madrassas.
The report found several other systematic violations of Article 22 where mainstream non-religious subjects were found to be infused with religious sermons thus forcing non-Muslim students to receive Islamic education. Consider for instance Meri Kitab, which is a required text textbook for grade one students in most public schools. Seven out of 16 chapters in Meri Kitab contained religious sermons. The report also found that textbooks were filled with disparaging remarks about the Hindus, while never mentioning that for centuries Muslims and Hindus had lived peacefully in the subcontinent.
One would have hoped to see public school teachers to be more tolerant and accommodating of religious minorities. However, the report found that an overwhelming majority of public school teachers (almost 80 per cent) viewed non-Muslims as “enemies of Islam”. The study also revealed that most madrassa teachers recognised religious minorities as bonafide citizens of Pakistan. However, only 60 per cent of public school teachers viewed non-Muslims as full citizens of the state.
When quizzed, Muslim students surveyed for the report were quick to repeat the politically correct statement that they respected non-Muslims and other religious/cultural minorities; however Muslim students were quick to criticise non-Muslims for their religious practices and questioned their loyalty to Pakistan. In fact, a large number of public school students did not see minorities as citizens, which is surprisingly a more radicalised view than the one held by madrassa teachers.
Surveys conducted in Pakistan reveal that higher education attainment does not necessarily enlighten individuals to the extent that they may modify their core beliefs about the society. In Pakistan, religious forces have always advocated for the segregation of sexes at the workplace and have pushed for separate work environments for men and women. One would assume that those who receive higher education may not hold the same views about gender segregation at the workplace as are held by religious zealots. Data from a 2010 random survey of Pakistanis however suggests that those with the highest education attainment were the ones who favored gender segregation the most (see the figure below). One wonders then what influence, if any, does education exert on millions who attend public sector schools and colleges in Pakistan.
Percentage of population favoring gender segregation at the workplace
Source: Pew Global Attitudes Spring 2010 survey
In the western world, most historic universities were founded as religious schools, which transformed into modern-day universities. The reverse has happened in Pakistan. Liberal arts universities founded by the British in the 19th century have since been transformed effectively into madrassas propagating hate and extremist values. No wonder medical colleges and engineering universities in Pakistan have become the hotbed of sectarian activism.
To align Pakistan with the rest of the civilised world, the next generations of Pakistanis have to be taught about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The curriculum in Pakistan, both in madrassas as well as in public schools, is in desperate need of transformation to eradicate extremism that has crept into the very DNA of the Pakistani society. If the curriculum is not reformed soon, there will be no end to the sectarian and nationalist violence, which will continue to claim the lives of lawyers in Karachi and soldiers in Turbat. Article 22: Safeguards as to educational institutions in respect of religion, etc. 1. No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or take part in any religious ceremony, or attend religious worship, if such instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.
In respect of any religious institution, there shall be no discrimination against any community in the granting of exemption or concession in relation to taxation.
Subject to law: a. No religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any educational institution maintained wholly by that community or denomination; and b. No citizen shall be denied admission to any educational institution receiving aid from public revenues on the ground only of race, religion, caste or place of birth. c. Nothing in this Article shall prevent any public authority from making provision for the advancement of any socially or educationally backward class of citizens.
*Hussain, Azhar; Salim, Ahmad; and Arif Naveed. Connecting the dots: Education and religious discrimination in Pakistan. A study of public schools and madrassas. United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, November 2011.
Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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