Religion for relief

We are sadly using religion to label, stigmatise and otherise people. The best people are the ones who devise ways to provide relief to emotionally or economically challenged people

“She is not well, I don’t think we can save her”, the young Pakistani research scientist, a pleasant person to talk to otherwise, said in a gloomy tone. He was working with a group of medical experts and scientists on a cancer research project in the United States (US). They were trying to find a way that would stimulate her immune system to fight back cancer, the simplest explanation a non-science person like myself can understand. He was referring to a lady patient who had volunteered some years back to be a test case for them. She had developerd a bond with her doctors and their associates. They were happy that she was responding so well to the treatment but then her cancer came back.

The team comprised of a Christian but a non-practicing doctor of European origin, a rigid Catholic believer from Latin American, a white American doctor, two African American researchers, a Hindu researcher of Indian origin, a Muslim surgeon from the Middle East, whilst being funded by a Jewish institution. This diverse list of religious and racial identities was revealed to me only on my insistence as these details are otherwise completely irrelevant to the team members. They are comprehensively absorbed in their work that is both stressful and satisfying. Recently, there was a celebration in the medical center when another project proved to be successful in devising a way to painlessly diagnose cancer. These doctors and researchers have their own definition of pleasure, for them, it means being able to relieve human pain. They are continuously focusing on prevention, cure or pain relief for cancer patients. They understand how excruciating cancer can be. They are not bothered by religious beliefs or regional and racial identities of their patients or co-workers. Providing relief to people who suffer is their religion.

This conversation made me think of a recent tragic episode in Pakistan, in which a renowned Ahmadi economist was appointed to find relief for the state’s ailing economy and was then dismissed on the basis of religious pressure. The expert was removed from his advisory post for his personal religious beliefs. It is an open secret that corrupt and incompetent governance over the last decades has left Pakistan’s economy crippled. We desperately need to uplift our economy. It is a question of survival. I won’t go into the statistical details, but we understand that a large number of our population is living under the poverty line, they lack basic health facilities, access to clean drinking water and toilets. As an educationist, the most disturbing figure for me is the number of children of eligible age, outside of schools. This means a bleak future awaits them. Other than the economic repercussions of not being able to provide education to all our children, there is social chaos which is already surfacing in public displays of narrow-mindedness. We need to declare a national education emergency and do our utmost to stop ignorance of all kind.

As an educationist, the most disturbing figure for me is the number of children of eligible age, outside of schools. This means a bleak future awaits them. Other than the economic repercussions of not being able to provide education to all our children, there is social chaos which is already surfacing in public displays of narrow-mindedness. We need to declare a national education emergency and do our utmost to stop ignorance of all kind

The most important step is to streamline madaras. One of my neighbours, often invites a group of children from a madarassa accompanied by their teacher for Quran Khawani. These children are a different ‘species’ if I compare them with other children of their age. We know there is a huge gap between private and public schools in Pakistan with respect to their fee structure, syllabus, medium of instruction and an overall lifestyle of the students, but if we make them sit together, they have a lot in common. They can talk about the theorems of Mathematics, some science practical, a piece of literature, cricket or football, a computer device etc, but the same cannot be said for madrassa going children. There are no drama clubs, debating activities, fine arts societies, poetry, story writing competitions or sports opportunities in our madaras. Child Psychology experts agree that a child’s potential and aptitude cannot be decided at an early age (of three to five years). That is precisely the age when parents belonging to the lower income strata decide to send their children to madaras to become a part of the clergy. There is no other occupational training opportunity available to them, and no extra-curricular activities to open their minds and polish their creative skills. They are made to recite the Quran in Arabic, to memorise anecdotes from history that suit the sectarian beliefs of their teachers and interpret Islam the way their teachers train them to without engaging in analytical discourse. The worst part is that they are groomed to hate any opinion which is not in line with theirs. They become judgmental of how others dress, walk, talk and perform religious rituals. There is a dangerous trend both in terms of numbers and the intensification of a rigid belief system. The children are being exploited for political and commercial gain. We desperately need to bring them into the mainstream education system. If religious education is provided in all schools then why is there a need to have separate institutions? There is a mutual cycle of ‘otherisation’ that needs to be broken through a collective effort of the government, civil society, academia, media, and sensible religious scholars.

For someone who has lost many loved ones to cancer, people working on finding relief for cancer patients, rejoicing in their success and mourning their failure to save a patient, are the most religious people. We are sadly using religion to label, stigmatise and otherise people. The best people are the ones who devise ways to provide relief to emotionally or economically challenged people.

Asma is a freelance writer. She can be reached at ahawan99@gmail.com

Published in Daily Times, September 12th 2018.