So what you’re implying is that asking questions makes me an atheist?

Alena SadiqRecently I read an article that cited a study by an US government commission regarding Pakistan’s education system in relation to the promotion of religious freedom and tolerance. As reported in the article, the study reviewed more than 100 textbooks from grades 1-10 from Pakistan’s four provinces. Researchers in February this year visited 37 public schools, interviewing 277 students and teachers, and 19 madrassas, where they interviewed 226 students and teachers. Many in Pakistan might brush away the results of this study as another ‘US attempt to malign poor, helpless Pakistan’ (note the sarcasm), but I beg them to look at it with an open mind. If you don’t believe the commission’s findings, look around you. I, for one, have experienced the findings of this report in my own school life, and so I cannot label this report as ‘false propaganda’.  I’ll address the findings of the report, one by one, and try to use personal experience to convince you that this isn’t a ‘Israeli conspiracy’. It is to be remembered that the bias found in private schools will be much less than that found in public schools. I can only imagine how discriminatory the teaching in public schools is, having only experienced its more subtle form at the private school I study at. Let me also clarify here that when I differentiate between the private schools and public schools, I am not being an elitist, rather I am talking about the two differing systems: the matriculation system and the O levels system. The matriculation system’s books are printed by government-appointed commissions etc, while the course books for the latter are similar to those studied in Britain and elsewhere where the O level system functions.

Firstly, lets take a look at something I think the study failed to point out: the divide that can be seen in teaching regarding different sects of Islam. I have heard my teacher, in the midst of delivering an Islamiyat lecture, using the term what we believe to describe the Sunni belief and the term what they believe to describe the Shia perspective on matters. Sunni and Shia are the two major sects in Islam – the overwhelming majority in Pakistan is Sunni. I was amazed to see the use of such differential terms – and found it rather objectionable. Why should we be taught the views of one sect? Why should a sect be labelled as the ‘other’? What about the Shia children in the class? I used to be one of the small lot in Islamiyat class who frequently questioned what was being taught – for example women rights in Islam. Though we never discussed something as controversial as the blasphemy law, even our questions about issues like hijab(head-covering) were looked upon with contempt. It seemed as if we were taken as the ‘miscreants’ because we dared to speak, to question. My suspicion turned into reality when our parents were warned of our apparent leaning towards atheism. How bizarre is it that a teacher assumes her student is a prospective atheist because they dared to ask her to provide them with evidence that Islam enforces the hijab? And even if, supposing her bizarre reasoning comes true, what business is it of hers to interfere in someone’s personal beliefs?

The report states that Islamic teachings and references were commonplace in compulsory text books, not just religious ones, meaning Pakistan’s Christians, Hindus and other minorities were being taught Islamic content. The most astonishing thing is that in a classroom, you will feel that the teacher assumes that the whole class is Muslim. It turns into a ‘we did this against the Hindus’ discussion, where there is a failure to realize that not all Pakistanis are Muslims.

The textbooks make very little reference to the role played by Hindus, Sikhs and Christians in the cultural, military and civic life of Pakistan, meaning “a young minority student will thus not find many examples of educated religious minorities in their own textbooks,” the report said. Let me cite a few examples of how non-Muslims who served our land have been forgotten by the textbooks, even those for the O level students. For example, Bhagat Singh, a freedom fighter of the sub-continent, is given no importance, or even mentions, in our books. Then comes the relatively recent Abdus Salam, the only Pakistani to have won a Nobel Laureate, who most Pakistanis don’t even know exists. Why? One reason could be that he belonged to the Ahmadiyya community, who themselves claim to be Muslims, but the Pakistani State, under Prime Minister Bhutto, declared them non-Muslims. Their community has been victimized and specifically subjected to target killings over the years.

“The anti-Islamic forces are always trying to finish the Islamic domination of the world,” read one passage from social studies text being taught to Grade 4 students in Punjab province, the country’s most populated. “This can cause danger for the very existence of Islam. Today, the defense of Pakistan and Islam is very much in need.” This mindset has penetrated deep into our young minds, and the blame goes not only to the education system but almost every institution that influences opinions. Media, government and the military forces all endorse this long-held, and self-created, belief that India, the USA and Israel are the axis of evil and are constantly plotting against Pakistan. This has led to the death of critical analysis and to the boom of conspiracy theories and hate mongers like Zaid Hamid.

As a nation we are warped in conspiracy theories and Islamic supremacy ideologies. This goes on to influence the students and forms a vicious circle. To put it precisely, we are stuck in a cycle, that keeps producing egocentric conspiracy theorists. In recent times though, things have been looking up. The press is free, and the internet and social media have really helped in making information more accessible to people. The teachers and students both are now exposed to more information and more views, and many people who blamed every misfortune on Israel, are now thinking rationally and finding that the fault can lie at home. This change, unfortunately, is very small and subtle. To really make an impact, things will have to be reshaped. First, the defence budget will have to be cut, and more needs to be spent on education than the meagre 2% it is getting currently. The education system should be revamped, the textbooks should be revised and the teachers trained. There should be a revision of the syllabus being studied. It is high time that we abandon the ‘jihadi’ syllabus that was prepared in the USA’s University of Nebraska during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We need to educate our nation, not radicalize them. Religion is a personal belief, let us not make it a tool to divide an already divided nation, and make them fight against each other. Pakistan is in dire need of an education emergency, and religious intolerance is one of the key issues that need to be tackled in the field of education. We must include, in the syllabus, the services of non-Muslims. We must make laws that hold accountable any hate speech made in classrooms against certain religions or sects. We must not force upon non-Muslims to study Islamiyat – why should they forcefully study what they don’t believe? Apart from legal framework, society needs to develop a moral code, so that in the future, religious discrimination is not only seen as undesirable, but also unacceptable, by the majority of people. Let me just close my argument with a piece of Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan . These words go out to all those who are ready to attack me for asking religion to be kept away from the public sphere:

In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission.

Enough said.

January 6th, 2012 / Alena Sadiq

3 thoughts on “So what you’re implying is that asking questions makes me an atheist?

  1. Pingback: Opinion: So what you’re implying is that asking questions makes me an atheist? | The Open Wall

  2. I am intrigued by the title, because it inspired me to think about how an Atheist like me would fare in modern Pakistan. Are there open Atheists there at all, or is it more of a private matter?

    On another note, I think that if people believe that constructive criticism is an “Israeli conspiracy”, then that within itself is part of the problem. If there truly was a free atmosphere in Pakistan, then that type of thinking would not be prevalent… Also, America is not that much better when it comes to religious tolerance. There may not be quite as much violence, save the occasional abortion clinic shooting or hate crime on the street, but there is much high charged rhetoric between the poles of thought. Good article by the way. It got me thinking.

    • I don’t think you’d find any open atheists in Pakistan, but they do exist. Openly declaring being an atheist means almost death here. You’ll be labeled a traitor to Islam, cut off from society and maybe the clerics would give fatwas(rulings) ordering your murder. I am afraid I don’t know how things would be if you’re a follower of some other faith in Pakistan, and you become an atheist.
      Glad you liked it!

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