Pakistan: Educating For Tolerance

As Pakistan grapples with its ongoing political and socio-economic battles, the recent spate of political assassinations and friction with the United States (US) over the arrest and subsequent release of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent have further exposed the inordinate challenges for the fragile civilian government.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Rosheen Kabraji

Since the start of the year, the assassinations of the governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and the Minister of Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, have brought into focus Pakistan’s identity struggle. Both were killed in broad daylight in Islamabad for speaking out against the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

These tragic incidents have not only underscored the brazen manner with which extremists are able to target politicians but has also brought to the surface the strong undercurrent of conservative opinion that is flowing in Pakistan. That Pakistani society is largely conservative is not new, but the danger is that this conservatism is increasingly manipulated by extremist forces and religious political parties.By its silence and inaction, the state has allowed the space for dissent to be hijacked by hardliners who are systematically stamping out any opposition. Unless this paradigm is challenged and the public space for debate is reclaimed for the multiple voices that exist in Pakistan, it will become difficult to reverse. Access to and control of public information regarding religion, law and foreign affairs has therefore become even more crucial. In its Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, the United Nations has enshrined education as “the most effective means of preventing intolerance”. The existing blasphemy law is often misused in order to settle personal vendettas: anyone can be accused with little evidence, leaving non-Muslim minorities vulnerable. Given the highly sensitive nature of religious matters in Pakistan, opposition to changes in the blasphemy law was widely expected. However, it is not just the silence, but the support that has been given to Taseer’s killer by some politicians, religious leaders and lawyers in the aftermath of the assassinations that has drawn criticism and accusations of appeasement.

The silencing and perceived silence of Pakistan’s ‘liberals’ (largely the elite in Pakistan) coupled with the feverish anti- American sentiment across the country after the release of Raymond Davis, a CIA contracted agent who was arrested on murder charges for shooting dead two men in Lahore in January, has increased concern about the direction in which nuclear-armed Pakistan ismoving.

Politicians are all too aware that in Pakistan perception matters as much, if not more, than fact. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is pre-occupied with its own political survival before the next scheduled general election in 2013. It is also dealing with the impact of last year’s devastating floods, ethnic tension, rampant inflation, unemployment and debt, in addition to fighting militants and cooperating with the US in its war in Afghanistan and a military that sets the foreign policy agenda. Additionally it faces an ongoing stand-off with the main opposition party, the PML-N, a long-standing feud between the executive and the judiciary and a voraciousmedia. With Pakistan’s key institutions at loggerheads, it is not surprising that each is focusing on protecting its own interests. If the current coalition completes its term it will be the first civilian government to do so.

According to the 2010 Pew Poll,many Pakistanis who want to modernise the country also hold extreme views about law, religion and society. A majority support the segregation of men and women in the workplace and the death penalty for those who leave Islam. While there are differing views across the country it appears the case that demands for economic modernity do not necessarily equate to demands for socioreligious change. To understand and engage with these contradictions, a concerted effort is required to examine the information and sources that influence these views within Pakistan’s social and political context, and recognition that many of these views have an emotional base, not a rational one.

The Pakistani media has grown exponentially over the past few years and television is fast becoming the primary source of information. However, the quality of reporting and programming varies greatly. In 2010 the US Embassy began issuing ‘Corrections for the Record’, which unsurprisingly go largely unnoticed by the masses that read vernacular newspapers, or watch television. In a country rife with conspiracy theories, given some have turned out to be true – like drone attacks and CIA agents on the ground in Pakistan – only serves to compound the situation. The mediums for discussion and debate have grown dramatically but both censorship and self-censorship exists. Today there are more than ninety private channels, many of which feature roundtable-style political debate plus countless, magazines and newspapers. However, the battle for information and influence will continue to favour extremist elements unless the state gains a firm grip on security, the economy and secures Pakistan’s education infrastructure.

According to the Education Emergency Pakistan report, the economic cost of not educating Pakistan is the equivalent of one 2010 flood every year. The cost of last year’s flood is estimated at fifteen billion dollars and affected over twenty million people. Last year the government spent just two percent of GDP on education. There have been copious plans and projects to assist Pakistan in building up its education infrastructure and capacity including the Pakistan Education Taskforce—a national initiative set up with British government support to implement the National Education Policy.

Realising these plans on a broad scale is a different matter. Since 1947 there have been nine different education policies, none of which have actually taken root. In a country where forty percent of the population is illiterate, the lack of education is a national handicap and a serious security issue. Frustrated by successive governments’ inability to deliver the basics, many young Pakistanis are looking for solutions elsewhere. Just under half of the Pakistani population is dependent on others to explain serious matters of faith, law and governance because they cannot read for themselves and under-25s makeup sixty percent of the total population. Information sources include literate family members (mostly male), local community leaders, madrassas, mosques and the broadcast media.

From those who are literate, fewer are ‘educated’. Even in the most elite schools of Pakistan critical thinking is not actively encouraged across the board. It is reflective of the hierarchical nature of society and deference to teachers is expected, if not demanded.

Pakistan has already admitted that it will not be able to meet its Millennium Development Goals in education by 2015 in contrast to India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, who are on track at present to meet their goals. However, Pakistan has had to deal with an unprecedented and overwhelming combination of natural disasters and terrorism that its South Asian neighbours have not had to manage on the same scale and comparisons need to be drawn cautiously. More worryingly, by the government’s own estimates if Pakistan continues at the current rate of progress, the constitutional right to education will be provided in Punjab by 2041, in Sindh by 2049, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa by 2064 and in Balochistan in 2100. While progress is being made by civil society and NGOs it is limited and the scope for misinformation remains extensive. Ignorance gives the hardliners the control they need to hold an entire nation’s thoughts hostage.

Pakistanis have seen dramatic changes in the past few years in their own neighbourhoods and wider society. No more so than the silenced liberals.Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri; not one shot was fired at him from the other security guards who reportedly knewof his plans beforehand. The lawyers’ movement, once held as an exemplar of democracy, showered Qadri with rose petals at his trial while no lawyer was able to act for Taseer (if they did not wish to receive death threats).

Liberals cling onto the oft-cited fact that a religious party has never won an election in the country. But will that last? In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the ministers most, not all, of the members of the National Assembly stood in silence to pay their respects and proceeded to call for a more resolute effort by the PPP-led coalitionto act against terrorism.There has been little evidence thus far of any action being taken against the ‘culprits’. President Zardari did not attend either of the men’s funerals as he fears for his own life and makes public appearances in Pakistan only rarely. The army issued no public statements of condemnation or condolence as it cannot risk internal dissent with many jawans (soldiers) allegedly having expressed sympathy for Taseer’s killer. The events and discourse that have followed from these murders are symptoms of a disturbing long-term trajectory for Pakistan: a deepening intolerance of diversity and dissent in its society, and an establishment that appears to be appeasing those who resort to violence in order to maintain their own grip on power.

As calls increase from the international community for the government to abide by its obligation to protect all its citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity, and the need to provide future generations with basic education and employment becomes more urgent, reclaiming the ownership of the discourse on Pakistan for its people will be difficult if the divisions in society deepen while the key institutions focus on power jockeying. With their silence they are continuing to foster the intolerance that will plague the Pakistani political apparatus and its people for generations.