Teaching tolerance in schools

It is an odd juxtaposition to claim that promoting the right of minorities is somehow not quite Islamic —  professing that we need to accordingly follow our Holy Book

Teaching tolerance in schools

In a recent workshop organized by the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, participants, mostly professors and lecturers were taken on a field visit to a Baha’i Centre in Islamabad. The purpose of the trip was to have the attendees interact with people of the Baha’i faith, learn about their culture and tradition, and get briefed about some of the challenges they face in Pakistani society. In the past, similar visits have been arranged to Hindu temples, Sikh Gurdwaras, Catholic churches and other places of worship, in an effort to promote religious tolerance and understanding.

 It is imperative that we start devising state-level strategies that teach tolerance and acceptance at the youngest levels in formal education, to build a Pakistan that is diverse, equal and tolerant

At the end of the workshop, one gentleman had the following parochial comment to share: "I criticize [your] effort for promoting the minorities’ knowledge... for Muslims, especially in Pakistan... We are Muslim, and we must preach the Islamic knowledge according to our religious book."

It is an odd juxtaposition, claiming that promoting the right of minorities is somehow not quite Islamic, and professing that we need to accordingly follow our holy book. This is especially disconcerting, when an earlier session in the workshop spoke about multiculturalism and the need for peaceful coexistence with everyone, from the point of religion. The fact that this came from a professor at a major university in Pakistan makes it even more disturbing.

Similarly, in an earlier trip to the same centre a few months back, another gentleman asked the Baha’i representative: "Why did you need to bring your religion, when we already had Islam?" It is a crass, unintelligent, uncouth question, one that not only demeans another faith, but makes light of the great religion of Islam and its message of peace and acceptance. To their credit, the Baha’i representatives maintained their cool, even encouraging the participants to ask additional questions that could help clarify misconceptions.

The fundamental problem here is that education in Pakistan does not teach tolerance. This is a soft power area that the state should focus on, especially under the National Action Plan (NAP), but refuses to. To his credit, the National Security Advisor (NSA) Gen. (retd) Naseer Janjua is keen on focusing on teaching tolerance in schools and universities, to help bridge the gap between people of different backgrounds, be it religion, creed, socio-economic, educational or any other metric. However, this is not readily implementable. Even if the state decided today to include teaching tolerance as a prerequisite for graduation from school, it would be years before this was executed. Additionally, this does not solve the problem of the 3 million children in seminaries, and the 24 million that are out of any schools.

Unfortunately, our schools have been known to teach text that is both morally dubious at best, and highly divisive at worst. Last year, I came across an example of a textbook teaching the Urdu alphabet in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province. The letter "yeh" spelled uniform, but depicted a man in shalwar kameez, face obscured by a scarf, holding an RPG launcher over one shoulder. The letter "toain" spelled "tayarah" (airplane), and showed an aircraft right before the moment of impact into the two towers on 9/11. Bear in mind that this is a book for first graders.

The text is no better. Our history books paint India in a negative light, which is partially understandable, as we have had acrimonious relations with that country for most of our existence. However, troubling is the implication that Hindus, by virtue of their religion, are Indian sympathizers, and thus untrustworthy and traitorous. The reverse of this is also true in India, but that is not the subject of this argument. Further, the uniting force for Pakistanis, even at that early age, is often our Muslim religious identity, but it comes at the expense of shunning all other identities as second class citizens, unworthy of our huddled uniformity. Even our constitution holds the highest two offices in the land, that of the president, and the prime minister, exclusively for Muslims, while we simultaneously marvel at the fact that a Muslim became the mayor of London, or member of the parliament in the US/ or Australia. The irony is self-evident.

Without tolerance, and exposure to the "other", our kinetic progress against terrorism and extremism will not take hold, let alone last. It is imperative that we start devising state-level strategies that teach tolerance and acceptance at the youngest levels in formal education, to build a Pakistan that is diverse, equal and tolerant.


The writer serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. He can be reached at zeeshan.salahuddin@gmail.com and tweets @zeesalahuddin