Sunday, May 8, 2011

Islam's role in shaping education and society in Pakistan

As much as it's a religion, Islam is also a political ideology that has deeply influenced Muslim-Muslim and Muslim-Non-Muslim relationships in the Subcontinent, as also the entire Pakistani society.

'Uniformity or Diversity' is one of the eight issues identified by Sehar Tariq, a public policy expert working with Jinnah Institute, a progressive think-tank of Pakistani origin, as confronting the education system in her country.
In a paper titled 'Pakistan's Eight Great Education Debates,' which was published in April 2011 in the wake of the government declaring an “education emergency,” Tariq says: “Pakistan’s education system and syllabi were carefully crafted to promote a sense of unity and nationhood derived from a common Muslim identity.
Ironically, while trying to develop a sense of united nationhood through an imposed and imagined sense of religious unity, the Pakistani syllabus has ignored and failed to celebrate the religious and ethnic differences in the country.
This short sighted policy has resulted in a deeply divided state rather than a united one. Sectarian and ethnic tensions have been on the rise and often resulted in violent clashes.”

The paper ( ) also cites a 2004 survey that canvassed the views of the pupils belonging to three types of schools in Pakistan -- madrasas, Urdu medium schools, and English medium schools -- on issues of tolerance and diversity.
The survey revealed that more pupils from madrasas and Urdu medium schools condoned violence and war and disapproved of equal rights for minorities than students from the English medium schools.
For example, only 17 per cent of the madrasa pupils said ‘yes’ to ‘equal rights to Hindus’; that ratio went up to 47 per cent in the case of pupils belonging to Urdu medium schools and as high as 78 per cent in the case of English medium schools.
A mere 13 per cent of Madrasa pupils approved ‘equal rights for Ahmedis’. That ratio went up dramatically to 47 per cent in the case of Urdu medium schools and an even better 66 per cent in the case of English medium schools.
Fifty three percent of the madrasa pupils supported the 'use of Jihadi groups in Kashmir'; that ratio went down to 33 per cent in the case of Urdu medium schools and 22 per cent in the case of English medium schools.

I found this debate on ‘Uniformity or Diversity’ in the education system of Pakistan interesting enough to write an email, reproduced below, to Sehar Tariq, the author of the paper.
The gist of the email is my belief that the political core of Islamic faith has played its part in not only encouraging separatism among Muslims of the sub-continent, the creation of Pakistan, and the weakening of secular values, but also radicalisation of Pakistani society and internal strife in that country.
The larger point is that the mainstream debate in the Subcontinent on Muslim-Non-Muslim relations, separatism and communalism has not been dealing head on with the political ideology of Islam, as also the political aspects of other religions, perhaps because of the so called “sensitivities” involved.
Most of the debates on Muslim-Non-Muslim relations in other countries, as well as in the global context, seem to have been similarly pusillanimous.
In contrast, some of the same debates in cyberspace are much bolder and more informed. 
(There is now a very large amount of information on the Web for non-Muslims to make sense of Islam. 
The political aspects of Islam include some of the teachings of the Qur’an, the contrast between Meccan and Medinan Surahs, the Sunna, the Muslim history, the institutions of Caliphate and Imamate, the importance of following Sharia or Islamic law, etc.)

Dear Sehar
I read about your paper ‘Pakistan’s Eight Great Education Debates’ and skimmed through its summary on JI website.
Here are some thoughts on ‘Uniformity or Diversity?’
It’s interesting to an Indian observer like me that uniformity/diversity is a serious issue confronting Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim country. A serious issue despite the fact that Islam seeks to exert a sweeping influence on all aspects of human life -- religious, social, cultural and political -- and emphasizes Muslim unity.
Since all education flows from our social, cultural and political values, Pakistani educationists will always have to deal with Islam and Islam-influenced social, cultural and political values in arriving at a coherent educational philosophy for the entire country.
(That will also involve the problem of the right interpretation of Islam.)
My understanding of Islam is that as much as it is a religion, it is also a political ideology that has a very conscious and deliberate differentiation between Muslims and non-Muslims -- ‘us’ and ‘them’ -- which has been reinforced through the history of Islam in Muslims' relationships with the people belonging to other religions and spiritual traditions.
The political ideology of Islam is evident in its concept of nationhood (‘Ummah’), which is very different from the idea of a secular nation in western thought, and in its intermingling of religion and state.
The distinctly political side -- or perhaps the ‘core’ -- of Islam is also evident in the fact that Muslims from the time of Prophet Muhammad have greatly valued the efforts (which, I believe, include waging wars) to spread their religion, expand its territory, and influence the local cultures, languages, etc.
In other words, Islam comes across as more political than other religions and spiritual traditions, even though all religions and spiritual traditions have their political side too.
(For example, the great variety of religious and spiritual traditions of India which are subsumed under the term ‘Hinduism’ --- a misnomer because there is no single ‘ism’ or faith that peoples who are supposed to belong to ‘Hinduism’ adhere to --- also have their political sides, but quite unlike Islam’s.)
Of late, I have read some material on the Web that suggests that Islam’s inherently political elements --- particularly its sharp differentiation between Muslim and non-Muslim, its mention of ‘jihad’ (whose interpretation has invariably veered towards violence and war), and its history of substantial Muslim-Muslim and Muslim-Non-Muslim violence --- have made Muslim societies permanently ill-disposed towards peace, stability and modernity.
I believe that the political-ideological core of Islam has played its part in encouraging separatism among Muslims of the sub-continent, the creation of Pakistan, and the weakening of secular values.
This political-ideological core, I suspect, may also have been contributing to radicalisation of Pakistani society and internal strife in the country.
It seems at this juncture of history that the artificial and violent segregation of Muslims and Hindus at the time of Partition robbed the Muslims on the Pakistani side of some of the tolerant characteristics of their composite culture and deprived them of an opportunity to continue to develop a culture of tolerance and secularism while they lived with the Hindus.
The loss for the people on the Indian side was much smaller because here Hindus and Muslims, as also people belonging to other religious and spiritual traditions, have continued to live side by side, peacefully for most of the time.
That’s why India seems better positioned to fight its religious extremism and defend democracy and secularism than Pakistan.
I wonder whether or not the modernists and liberals in Pakistan trace some of the problems of their society to the political core of Islam and whether or not they believe that the political core of Islam encouraged separatism among the Muslims of the subcontinent and then contributed to the strife in Pakistani society.
I also wonder whether or not an educationist like you will find something to agree with the view that building a modern, liberal and democratic education system in Pakistan will require dealing with some of the problems that could be traced to the political core of Islam.
I wish you and Pakistan all the very best and would like to see the Pakistani society moving towards tolerance, peace and democracy.

Kapil Bajaj
Delhi, India
My email to Sehar Tariq has not yet elicited a response.

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