Education and bigotry

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

A FRIEND who runs a school for children from modest-income families tells me that very often she has fathers coming to her with a request she found strange when she was first confronted with it.

They wanted to withdraw their sons from school for a year. When she probed into this unusual favour they sought, she was told that the boy was to be admitted to a madressah for a year.

The period the child was in the madressah was to be a gap year to enable the boy to become a hafiz-i-Quran (one who has memorised the holy book). Thereafter he would return to regular schooling. Being a hafiz was calculated to bring him many advantages in this world, if one lives in an Islamic Republic, and the next.

My friend`s observations on the child when he returned a year later are more intriguing. More than anything else, she found that the child`s mind was numbed and the initiative and interest he had shown in his studies previously was gone. His eyes had a blank look and for all practical purposes he was lost to her. She simply could not revive his erstwhile childhood buoyancy in spite of all her efforts.

If this can happen to a child in a madressah in the heart of Karachi where he would presumably be returning home to his family every evening, imagine what would be the state of mind of the 2.7 million children now enrolled in the 20,000 madressahs in the country. Many of them are removed from normal activities and community living. Being cut off from outside civilisation, these children are denied the warmth of a home environment for long stretches of time.

No change in the status, curricula and pedagogy of the madressahs seems to be on the cards. The Madressah Reform Committee, which was constituted last year as part of the National Education Policy 2009 (NEP) under the interior ministry to set the madressahs` house in order and introduce reforms, has still not begun functioning on a regular basis. No meeting of this body has been held so far.

Many worry about the rigid discipline enforced in the madressahs and their obscurantist curricula and obsolete pedagogy. But as far as a doctrinaire approach goes, of equal concern is our mainstream education system which seeks to inculcate a mindset in our children that is hurting society irrevocably.

Studies have found that the psyche of a large number of youth enrolled in government schools is no better than what madressah education produces. It is, in fact, more dangerous because few people seem to be aware of the curriculum of hatred taught in our schools. For a very large number of children, `Hindu India` is an enemy country and a war in Kashmir amounts to fighting jihad and so on.

The NEP 2009, which supposedly provides the framework for our education system today, defines Islamic education as being the duty of society and the state. According to the NEP “an integrated educational system is being developed in which Islamic values, principles, and objectives are reflected in the syllabi of all disciplines”. What is to be taught is spelt out quite comprehensively in the policy document. The aim is said to be to help children understand and apply the basic principles of Islam in their lives and develop society on those lines.

The NEP even notes in detail the contents of the Islamiat course that should, among other things, provide for instruction on the basic pillars of Islam which include “Risalat, prayers, fasting, zakat, pilgrimage, and jihad and their importance in daily social life”.

The entire tenor of the curricula ensures that students are subjected to a massive dose of indoctrination. If you look at the textbooks minus the title page it is difficult to differentiate one from the other. Be it an Islamiat book or books of English, Urdu or Pakistan Studies, each begins with chapters which are entirely religious in content or have a strong religious undertone. At one time even a biology book contained an ayat on jihad.

This has no doubt delighted the religious parties and efforts to change the tone somewhat were defeated and the announcement of NEP 2009 was delayed to enable the ministry of education to insert Chapter 4 on Islamic Education. This had been dropped from the original draft — the first time since the Zia days.

As religiosity takes over control of public thinking — at times giving rise to controversies rooted in different interpretations by different sects — voices are being raised asking why it cannot be left to the family to teach children about Islam as was done a few decades ago.

Moreover, this over-emphasis on religion has given rise to a majoritarian dictatorship that seeks to exclude the religious minorities from Pakistan`s society. What is shocking is that the state also patronises this approach, giving extra weight to a hafiz-i-Quran in admissions and making Islamic teaching compulsory in the teachers` training curricula. The Punjab government went overboard on the last count and even issued orders to non-Muslim teachers to attend courses on Islam. Loud protests led to the withdrawal of this order.

Although the education policy pays lip service to a tolerant and peace-loving society, this ideal is negated by the approach adopted. By glorifying Muslims vis-Ã -vis non-Muslims a teacher can implicitly denigrate the latter. It also fosters the impression that Pakistan is mainly for Muslims when we know there are a number of religious minorities coexisting with Muslims enjoying — at least on paper — equal rights granted to them by the constitution.

After reading this, would it surprise anyone that a Jamaat-i-Islami leader should address only “the majority of the Muslims present in this meeting” at a gathering held last week at the PMA House on the Karachi situation? This invited an immediate intervention from renowned dancer/women`s rights activist Sheema Kermani, which won general approval. She pointed out to the speaker that Pakistan belonged to everyone and not all may necessarily be Muslims.