Left to right: Syed Nomanul Haq, Faisal Bari connected via Skype and Sami Mustafa — Anis Hamdani/White Star
In a recent Herald forum on madrasa reform, Humeira Iqtidar, a lecturer of South Asian politics at King’s College, London, remarked that “to try to forcefully teach tolerance is oxymoronic.” In the light of recent terror attacks in Pakistan and Paris, this comment simultaneously highlights the need for tolerance and alerts against the dangers inherent in enforcing it from above.
Given the country’s current condition, it is worth asking what leads to building or promoting a militant mindset and the extent to which education is responsible for this transformation. What must we do to create a tolerant society which accepts and respects differences — of opinion, ideology and religion? Can state-backed initiatives such as reforming educational curriculum and regulating madrasas lead to a Pakistan at ease within and with the rest of the world? Most importantly, can we forcefully teach people to be tolerant?
To discuss these questions, the Herald invited Faisal Bari, an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) who has worked extensively on educational reforms, and Sami Mustafa, an education reformer and the founder of the CAS school in Karachi.
Syed Nomanul Haq, adviser at the department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, moderated the discussion. The forum took place at the Greenwich University in Karachi.
Nomanul Haq. In Pakistan, I see four educational universes where the idioms are mutually incommensurable and the aspirations, hopes and visions are different. There is the English-medium crowd and there is the Urdu-medium crowd. Then there are those who are neither here nor there. And, of course, we have the madrasas.
There is a tendency to see madrasas as essentially problematic. They have played a monumental role even in the development of science. Copernicus used some mathematical principles devised by someone who was a timekeeper at a mosque in Damascus. The condition of madrasas these days, which is pathetic, is not a matter of the essence of the institution; it is a matter of historical contingencies and we have to examine what those contingencies are.
A madrassa in Islamabad — AP photo
The purpose of madrasas, particularly in South Asia, has been to create an alternative intellectual class, not to create a service industry for people to lead prayers, perform nikah ceremonies and funeral prayers or teach the Quran. People such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad studied in madrasas. Dr Fazlur Rahman, one of the best scholars of religion we have had in Pakistan, came through the madrasa system.
Let me say a few words about the panellists. These are people who may not be well known themselves but their work is well known and Sami Mustafa is one of them. [Besides running a private school system and fixing government schools in areas such as Khairpur in Sindh and Lodhran in Punjab], he has played a valuable role in the education sector in an advisory capacity with the federal and provincial governments. My old friend Faisal Bari and I were together at LUMS. I have always been impressed by his intellect, integrity and boldness. He is an economist and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives. It is a delight to have both of you here.
Sami Mustafa. If we look at history, we see civilisations such as the Greek one, which was the fountainhead of education and intellectual methodologies. This society had people such as Plato and Aristotle yet it was an intolerant society where slavery was prevalent and there was a poor underclass. Universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard have been around for hundreds of years but the things we take for granted today when we talk about Western societies – such as the right to vote – are a very recent phenomenon. In England, you could not vote unless you had property, and that has changed very recently.
Although I would like to think that education alone can bring about tolerance in society, the truth is that it is not likely to do so. Not to say that education is not important. There are, however, a number of things that must go hand in hand with it. I see many problems with the narrative that education can achieve everything. While education was spreading in the West, it was not solely responsible for bringing about tolerance. Laws were-enacted to achieve that. It wasn’t education that decided that capital punishment was bad; it wasn’t education that said slavery should be abolished — laws were enacted to achieve these things. As recently as 1965, [President Lyndon] Johnson introduced the equal opportunities programme in the United States [to end racial discrimination against the Blacks]. If the Western countries had not enforced these laws, education alone would not have made them the democratic, tolerant societies that they have become. So, in some ways, tolerance has to be enforced on society — though I am using the word ‘enforced’ for lack of a better term.
A class in session at a school in Peshawar on International Student Day, November 2014 — EPA
After the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, questions are being asked whether our madrasas are responsible for terrorism. I think the question is not complete until we ask if terrorists are working on someone’s behest or if they are working on their own. If they are working on their own then such fringe elements have existed all over the world. There was the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.
In Pakistan’s case, something else is happening but we are using madrasas as scapegoats. I am not saying they are not pulling the trigger but the gun is being supplied from somewhere else and the funds are coming from another place. There are probably madrasas where violence is being taught but there are a large number of madrasas where it is not being taught. I am not sure why even a group of people heavily prejudiced against the other just picks up guns and kills [the other]. Somebody has to fund them, organise them and provide them with political and legal support.
To put everything into the basket of madrasas and clerics is wrong. Yes, they are the ones who are at the forefront [of sectarian and militant terrorism] but they are also the ones who are marginalised and marginalisation has its own fallout. If you speak of bringing about tolerance in Pakistan, you need to look at other forces as well.
I think the educational system has just become extremely incompetent. Government schools are bad; private schools are there to serve as models but they are also bordering on incompetence. Whether education is leading to radicalisation is not the question. The fundamental problem is that the critical faculties that quality education is supposed to develop in children are missing.
Clerics engaged in discussion at the madrasa in Lal Masjid, Islamabad — AFP
Haq. The development of justice, democracy and liberty did not happen in an intellectual vacuum. [Education] must promote a thought process and analytical thinking; otherwise you are creating people who just want to find a job and make a career. This kind of vocational training is the death of intellectual thinking.
As a society, we are not in touch with our legacy at all. Even Shia-Sunni history is not remembered here. People don’t know that the Zaakirs take their lead from historical figures who are not Shia. They don’t know what Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai says about Imam Hussain. They don’t know that Allama Iqbal’s entire philosophy of khudi is based on the personality of Hazrat Ali. Who will teach them these things?
Faisal Bari. The problem is not that madrasas exist. They have been around for a very long time. The question is that if the state is saying under Article 25-A of the Constitution that it will provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and 16 then why should these children be allowed to go to madrasas? If someone wants to attend a madrasa anyway, why shouldn’t they do so after the age of 16 — after completing their basic mandatory education?
Many people also feel that madrasas function as orphanages and sanctuaries for the poor, but that is a very sad excuse for madrasas to exist. The state and society are then shedding their responsibility of looking after these children.
I, however, agree that the issue [of creating a tolerant Pakistan] is much broader than reforming madrasas and getting rid of terrorism. If some parts of the syllabus taught in government schools – and private schools as well – are analysed, that throws up a lot of questions concerning how we have interpreted history, how we teach Islam and what values we transfer to the children about what is right and what is wrong.
If you look at low-cost private schools, these respond to perceived parental demands. If the perceived demand is for turning children into better Muslims, schools respond to that by increasing education on certain aspects of Islam. Whether schools should go down that road or not is a question that our state and society need to think long and hard over. How far should schools be allowed to shape the personality of our children? This has been discussed in many societies, secular or otherwise, and it is worth pondering over here.
If we are going to teach children by rote, if we are not going to allow them to develop their critical thinking and the ability to learn how to learn, the problem of being close-minded will become much worse. If we look at different generations of Pakistanis from the 1960s till now, we will witness a tremendous closing of the Pakistani mind; our perceptions have become a lot narrower than they used to be. Opening minds does not mean enforcing a curriculum that forces tolerance upon everyone but it does include the opening of the debate — including on what madrasas are for and what they should be for.
Girls recite verses from the Quran at a madrasa (religious school) in Islamabad — Reuters
Sibtain Naqvi. A recent study mentions that close to half of all madrasas in Pakistan operate illegally. What do we do about them? What do we do about the Salafi thought – being taught at many registered and unregistered madrasas – which advocates violence and hatred against certain sections of society?
Haq. Illegal institutions are also prevalent outside the religious spheres. There are so many educational institutions which promise you a degree in computer programming and business administration, for example, but then they turn out to be fake.
Bari. What is true of a madrasa is true of a private school as well. Most of the places where our children go for tuitions are unregistered. We do not know what is being taught there. How can the society and state allow these places to remain completely unregulated? We have to regulate them anyway. Many madrasas essentially came about by taking over land from the state and building an illegal institution upon it. The state, since General (retd) Ziaul Haq’s regime, never had the strength to either close them down or bring them under some form of a legal structure.
From whatever I have read on madrasas in British-ruled India, it appears to me that those madrasas were created in the 1860s and 1870s as a defence mechanism against the British hegemony over the subcontinent. They were meant to be spaces in which Muslim culture, heritage and knowledge could be preserved. One of the questions that came about after 1947 was how to bring madrasas into the educational mainstream in the newly-created Muslim-majority Pakistan. Should they not be turned into institutions where mainstream education was imparted along with Islamic education? There were many attempts to formulate policies for that. In East Pakistan, about 11,000 madrasas were, indeed, brought into the mainstream education system. The scheme was not so successful in West Pakistan, and that had a lot to do with the power of the religious parties.
Ambassadors of nine countries inquire about the health of students who were injured in the terrorist attack at the Army Public School in Peshawar — APP
Ryenaz Jehangir Khan. My question is directed towards Sami Mustafa. Can our children have a good future? Will they not be shot at?
Mustafa. If you look at the Red Brigade in Germany, it was not the product of madrasas. It was very violently protesting against something. It took England many years to sort out the Irish troubles. The Irish were not products of madrasas either. Then you had the Tamil Tigers. They fought for about 20 years in Sri Lanka and ravaged the economy completely. Terrorism and intolerance are not simply the products of educational institutions, whether these institutions are madrasas or something else. We need to look elsewhere to understand terrorism and intolerance.
Intolerance in our society is not coming from a system of education hijacked [by madrasas], though this seems to be the general impression. I think we have not yet established what the correct narrative is. You can speak to anybody you want: educationists, civil society, educated people and lawyers and the like and, the first problem in the education sector that they will highlight is that of low budget. The general narrative is that we need more funds. Or do we? If you have a failing system, you can keep putting in money but it does not create any benefits.
The other impression is that there are different educational systems in our country. In the United States, there are wide varieties even within public sector schools as they are run on property tax. You could go to a very good public sector school if you live in an affluent area and you may go to an average public sector school if you are living in another area. Then there are also denominational schools in the United States run by religious organisations.
Haq. We are all deeply grieved about the Peshawar school attack but we must not use this tragedy to unleash our prejudices – whether liberal or conservative – and rejoice over deaths [of terrorists being hanged by the government]. The taking of a life, whether it is that of a criminal or of an innocent person, is a sobering moment. We need to look into why the death happened and use it as a moment of reflection. We need to search our souls and ask, what is going on. Rejoicing over dead bodies is not the answer to death. Ultimately, there has to be a more comprehensive and sober solution to the problem.
I don’t think the problem of violence can ever be solved through the use of armies or law enforcement. When young people are oppressed like they are in our society, they become violent. We need a comprehensive solution and killing [and hanging] is not that solution. Artists, philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists have to sit together and think about it. We have to have a national urge to solve these issues, otherwise things are likely to get worse.
As the Army Public School in Peshawar reopens post a terrorist attack,
Pakistani Army chief Raheel Sharif speaks with a student — AFP
Bari. The Peshawar attack is a tremendous tragedy which has shaken us in many ways, but do we have the organisational and institutional structures which will allow us to channel our thinking about what has been going wrong into something positive? Reaction against madrasas or private schools or public schools is not going to work. We are talking about millions of children in any which way we look at: There are 25 million children out of schools, for instance. The total population of Canada is 30-35 million. We need a national action plan for re-evaluating at our educational structure, the curricula and the way to teach, across all types of institutions. We need a national action plan to provide education and basic amenities to every single person in Pakistan. If you do not have safety nets, if you do not provide a minimum educational standard to children across Pakistan, how do you expect any large-scale social engineering to happen?
Taking care of the weaker segments of the society has to be the starting point. These are the people we have been cheating for a very long time. Since the 1980s, the middle and upper classes, the bureaucrats, the army men, the business class, anyone who has money, have pulled out their children from public schools. We have pulled ourselves out of public health. Our water comes to us in bottles, our security is private, our garbage collection is private; we don’t live in the same society [where the less privileged sections of the populace live]. We live in a completely divided society where a child going to private school will never meet a child going to madrasa or a child who does not go to school at all. How can this be one society?
Either we decide that there is a very strong reason to rethink the distribution of wealth to empower people by providing basic services to them or we just get ready for raising the walls around our schools and houses and keeping snipers on our rooftops. The middle class and upper class need to agree on this large-scale rethinking. Otherwise, this rethinking will not happen. Politicians will not have the incentive to do this unless the people who support them make them do it. The bureaucracy will not do this because it only carries out the orders given to it. It all comes down to people, especially those with a voice. People who have a voice in Pakistan are those who are from the middle and upper classes.
Anything short of total reform is not going to work. If you shut down a madrasa, something with a slightly different name will come about; you shut that down and another thing will come about. We have seen that many times with the banning of religious, sectarian and militant organisations. We need a much more basic reform in our society. If the upper classes have the gumption and strength to do that, we will see something happening in the next year or two.
The debate on education is much larger than just the conversation about deradicalisation. It is about creating a better society. Education is a social good in the sense that a child will eventually be a part of society. The real question is what kind of society do you want to create — will it be a society divided between the haves and have-nots?
Most of the people concerned about the quality of schooling don’t send their children to public schools. This ‘exit’ from public schools has weakened the ‘voice’ to reform public schools. Why would anyone reform a public school where only those children go who cannot afford to go to a private school? How do you change that? Only in half-jest, I suggest a law that makes it mandatory for all public sector employees, bureaucrats, and army personnel to send their children to public schools. If Sharifs in uniform and Sharifs without uniform have to send their children to a public school, do you think that public schools will look like they do today? I think we will have a very different equilibrium then. Of course, doing that is not easy. The equilibrium in education cannot be changed at all with anything short of a drastic and significant reform in education. If we cannot change that, it is hard to see how the results that come out of the education system will change.
Student. Mr Haq, you said death is not the answer to death. What is the alternative?
Haq. You have to create conditions that reduce the production of criminals. We nurture criminality. When the former Soviet Union was in Afghanistan [and Pakistan sent militants to fight the Soviet forces there], people said this would radicalise our youth. And see what has happened? We have radicalised our youth.
When you have high temperature, the first thing a doctor will do is bring the temperature down but that is not the solution. The doctor has to diagnose the problem. I am talking about doing the diagnosis. I am not saying that you have to let people off the hook but taking the lives of those who have committed terrorism is not the final solution; it is only a first step. If we don’t take other necessary steps, hanging terrorists will produce other criminals.
Student. Is modernising madrasas a possibility?
Mustafa. I think modernising madrasas is a bit of a misnomer because, by definition, the two things may have difficulty coexisting. I also don’t think that many people who are in madrasas are there by choice. If they have the option to go to a private school, they would probably want to go there.
Haq. Let us discuss what modernising means. Does modernising mean creating pluralism and openness? Is modernism about developing a habit of inquiry? Is modernism about not forcing your position onto others by violence? If this is modernity, it can happen anywhere — even in a madrasa.
In South Asia, the struggle for modern secular education was led by madrasa-educated people. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan never went to an English medium school; he didn’t know English. Altaf Hussain Hali and Abul Kalam Azad did not know English. It is not a question of what constitutes a syllabus. I could be teaching you Aristotle or Bertrand Russell, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the attitude of inquiry and that attitude could be nurtured in a classical environment – characterised by madrasas – or a postmodern environment.
There are Christian seminaries which teach Latin classics and they exist even today and they have never been a problem. They also undertake moral training as madrasas do. Similarly, in Israel, there are many classical educational institutions which are very similar to our madrasas. My argument is that the problem lies outside – in the wider society – and we have to look beyond just textbooks to find the answer.
Children play in the playground of a private school in Panjgur, Balochistan — Fahad Naveed
Ghazanfar. Don’t you think that tolerance being forcefully taught is a contradiction within itself?
Mustafa. I don’t think this is a contradiction at all. For example, we have a problem of honour killing which we are not going to overcome through education alone. We need to enact laws to change what is considered as an honourable act into a criminal act. Yes, tolerance cannot be forced on anyone but we always need to enact laws to put our conduct in perspective.
Haq. Enactment of laws is a symbol of social consciousness and that consciousness has to be nourished by some sort of education. Laws don’t operate in intellectual isolation. This is where education is crucial.
Bari. Has making Islamiat and Pakistan Studies compulsory subjects achieved the objectives that the policymakers had in mind when they made these subjects compulsory? Have students become better Muslims and better Pakistanis by virtue of studying these subjects? No, they haven’t. We, indeed, have seen more disruption in our society in the last 20 to 30 years than ever before. I am not saying that this increased disruption is caused by making these subjects compulsory but I always feel that if you want to turn people away from something, especially children, then enforce it on them. The best way to engage children in any area is to make it interesting for them, to make it relevant to their concerns about life. This failure to teach things in an interesting manner is where we are failing across the education systems.
Haq. I think we have abandoned madrasas to those who have nothing better to do. Our best minds should be teaching religious studies. We should not surrender Arabic and Persian studies to incompetent minds. Religion is an area which will never be left unsubscribed. If you abandon it, somebody else will pick it up.
In the end, I thank you all for attending this forum.