Intolerance and extremist attitudes

There have been minimal efforts in this country to promote a culture of diversity and tolerance. As a result, when a person is old enough to attend university, he or she feels that they are superior because of their religion, ethnicity, culture or political affiliation

Following the murder of school principal Hafiz Sareer, his murderer Fahim Shah stated in his confessional statement that he had been taught to kill blasphemers without feeling any remorse. Shah was one of the students at Hafiz Sareer’s school as well as a Hafiz-e-Quran.

Is this carnage a result of the intolerance that has permeated our society? If a Hafiz believes that it is justifiable to murder someone on the suspicion of blasphemy, then is a Hafiz worthy of the respect given to him or her by Pakistani society at large? Can the kinds Hafiz produced in our Madaris be said to have any understanding on religion at all?

It is true that teenagers like Fahim are vulnerable to extremist ideology, and that young men like him need the support and guidance of both their parents and schools. However, it is important to understand where things went wrong for him. After primary school, there is an abrupt change in the treatment of young people by both their schools and their parents. Many institutions and parents give teenagers a greater degree of independence, but this is still a crucial time when young people must have mentors around them at home and at school.

There are many causes for the intolerance that manifested itself in Fahim when he killed his principal. This includes early life experiences and socialisation, early education, a media which is obsessed with publicising the sit-ins and statements of Islam’s so-called protectors and the decisions taken by the state in the name of Islamisation.

There have been minimal efforts in this country to promote a culture of diversity and tolerance. As a result, when a person is old enough to attend university, he or she feels that they are superior because of their religion, ethnicity, culture or political affiliation.

A culture of plurality must be promoted at home. Instead, children are brought up being told stories that glorify their own religion, caste, language and ethnicity. There is hardly any talk of other faiths and cultures in a positive light. Instead, the same old stereotypes are passed down from one generation to the next. Derogatory language about other cultures and religion is quite acceptable, even amongst educated circles.

The core focus in primary and secondary education needs to be on positivity plus on understanding diversity rather than on comparison and exclusion. A sixth grade history book talks about Mohammad Bin Qasim and Mehmood Ghaznawai as great warriors. Attacks on temples and wars against Hindu leaders are glorified. When this kind of narrative is imparted in our schools, is it surprising that society has become radicalised?

Education is meaningless if it does not lead to the acceptance of plurality. Diversity is natural and beautiful, and any education that does not lead to its acceptance is not education in the true sense. This should not be a surprise because of the problems in our education systems, of which there are many — including in private schools. Unfortunately, teaching is considered a last resort profession in our society. Many people think that only people who are not fit for any other job teach. Apart from this, the content in our school text books is also inclined towards the glorification of Islam. If one takes a glance at Social Studies text book for grade five in Pakistani schools, it places great importance on denying the legitimacy of other major religions like Hinduism, Sikhism and Christianity. These are faiths which constitute at least three to five percent of Pakistan’s population.

The core focus in primary and secondary education needs to be on positivity plus on understanding diversity rather than on comparison and exclusion. A sixth grade history book talks about Mohammad Bin Qasimand Mehmood Ghaznawai as great warriors. Attacks on temples and wars against Hindu leaders are glorified. When this kind of narrative is presented in our schools, is it surprising that society has become radicalised?

Each age group till higher secondary needs psycho social support as per requirement of that age group. As was stated earlier, a student is always in the need of a mentor and emotional refuge. Both schools and parents must understand the importance of their role at all stages of growth. Let the teachers of primary secondary and higher secondary be trained on the themes of diversity and acceptance and its role for a cohesive and peaceful society. The glorification of war and war heroes should not be a part of the curriculum at any stage. A culture of positive intercultural dialogue needs to be promoted to do away with misleading stereotypes against different cultures.

The growing number of private schools and colleges are filling the educational vacuum in this country, but there need to be proper checks to find out whether the owner and the human resource involved is eligible to impart education? Private schools and colleges are considered highly profitable businesses. Owners usually make a killing, but the administration and teachers are often without the basic skills required to be an educationist. The state needs to look into the mushroom growth of these institutions as they deal with the minds of children and our future.

The writer has experience in the field of education and is currently working as a resource person in the development sector

Published in Daily Times, January 31st 2018.