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From Aligarh to Charsadda – Zaigham Khan

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As if the state’s own criminal negligence was not enough to keep us one of the most illiterate nations on earth, a faction of the TTP has declared war on our students and educational institutions. While Islamic State is taking roots in the land, a Pakistani version of Boko Haram is already flourishing here, threatening security and the future of millions of students and the whole education system.

In a chilling video released by the TTP two days after the attack on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, Khalifa Umar Mansoor, head of a faction of the TTP, repeats a familiar narrative but gives it a sinister twist to justify attacks on institutions of learning.

A lacklustre figure except for his oversized pirate beard, Khalifa Mansoor repeats what most Taliban and their many extremist cheerleaders have said already – that democracy and the country’s ‘system’ is based on kufr (apostasy) because it does not recognise Allah’s sovereignty. This is a narrative that was much discussed after Maulana Sufi Mohammad’s famous speech made on the eve of the peace agreement between the Swat Taliban and government in April 2009.

While Sufi Mohammad’s diagnosis found the judicial system to be at the root of the problem, for Mansoor it is the education system. And that is why his group “… started this auspicious activity from Bacha Khan University… because this (education institutions) is the place where lawyers are made, this is the place that produces military officers, this is the place that produces members of parliament, all of whom challenge Allah’s sovereignty”.

He also makes it abundantly clear that this attack was a result of a well-thought-out strategy and he did not pick a random soft target as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif optimistically stated in Davos.

“We carried out a comprehensive consultation and agreed after the consultation that from now on we will attack schools, colleges and universities. Now we will not kill military officials in barracks, lawyers in courts or politicians in parliament… We will demolish this foundation.”

On an ideological level, rejection of the modern education system in the name of religion and linking it with all ills may sound familiar to many South Asian Muslims. After all Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was declared a kafir by many ulema for his struggle to bring Western education to Muslims in the middle of the 19th century. However, when we try to explore this common perception, an interesting pattern emerges that has endured for one and a half century. In fact, it was not his advocacy of modern education that turned Sir Syed into an apostate in the eyes of religious scholars as none of the fatwas against him mentioned modern education as the reason.

The ulema were infuriated with him for his religious views which they termed as naturalism (nechariyat), declaring it a travesty of the teaching of the Holy Quran and against the consensus of the ulema. Facing this opposition, Syed Ahmad relented on his views allowing the ulema to control the department of theology and Islamic studies in his college and announcing that he would not interfere with its functioning. Satisfied with his assurances, Qasim Nanotwi, rector of Deoband sent his son-in-law Maulana Abdullah Ansari to Aligarh and Syed Ahmad appointed him as head of the department.

Soon Aligarh and Deoband entered into a compromise. Deobandi teachers were offered jobs at Aligarh to teach Islamic studies, a compulsory subject for Muslim students. An arrangement was also reached, allowing Aligarh students to attend lectures at Deoband. Aligarh, on its part, started enrolling Deoband graduates to learn English.

Almost a century later, on the eve of Independence, the two institutions stood face to face on the opposite sides of history. Even as Aligarh was claiming credit for its crowning glory – the state of Pakistan – won through the struggle of its students and those influenced by its movement, an overwhelming majority of Deoband scholars were opposing Partition tooth and nail. However, the accommodation between the two groups had taken a more enduring form by then and it continued in Pakistan. For example, the most influential scholar during the first two years of Pakistan was Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani, who founded the Jamiat-e-Uma-e-Islam in opposition to Deoband’s Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind. It was Usmani who led the funeral prayers of Quaid-e-Azam and spearheaded the Objectives Resolution.

This adjustment between the secular ruling elite and the Deobandi scholars appears like a soft version of the alliance between the Al Saud family and the Wahabi scholars and has not only continued but strengthened in the last 65 years – often at the cost of other schools of thought and liberal democracy. Since it is an informal adjustment, boundaries have never been set and the ulema have been able to progressively encroach upon the space that the secular elite – including politicians as well as civil and military officials – had demarcated for itself. They have been hugely supported by the fact that the state has used their influence and madressah students for their warped foreign policy objectives.

It is no coincidence that, except for one jihadi organisation, almost all good and bad jihadis, including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, belong to the Deoband school of thought. The way Ziaul Haq turned this adjustment into a Faustian bargain for the state is only one ominous twist to this long story, and is the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

Interestingly, in India Deoband has kept clear of any involvement in extremism and strongly supports secularism in its homeland. Today, Deoband scholars on both sides of the border appear to be two different schools of thought. How this experiment has gone wrong can be seen from the fact that during an interview with Saleem Safi last week, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, head of the Council of Islamic Ideology and a leading Deobandi scholar refused to declare Pakistan a Dar-us-Salam (Land of Peace for Muslims) while Darul Aloom Deoband in India has bestowed this status on their country on the ground that Muslims are free to worship and live according to their beliefs and conscience in that country.

Interestingly, Maulana Sherani was appointed to his position by former president Asif Ali Zardari, grandson of Hasan Ali Effendi, a towering figure of the Aligarh movement and founder of the Sindh Madressatul Islam.

While the Western-educated elite liberated the country and thus got an upper hand over the clergy, who also aspired to the leadership of the Muslim community, they decided not to take education to the common man. Perhaps they inherited this Brahmin model of education from Aligarh. At Aligarh, education was the preserve of the Muslim elite – the Ashraaf – and Sir Syed never aspired to educate lower class Muslims.

In Pakistan, there is outrage when university funding gets a hit but there is no public outcry against the abysmal situation of primary and secondary education. It’s not hard to see that tertiary education is the preserve of the middle class while only the poor send their children to government schools at the primary and secondary levels.

The ulema, enjoying state patronage and funding from brotherly sources, have in the meantime served the poor, providing their children food and shelter at their ever-expanding madressah networks and giving them an opportunity to rise from absolute poverty through the relatively comfortable and increasingly powerful job of a maulvi. They have also indoctrinated them with an extremist and sectarian outlook on life and given them the dream to rule the country one day.

The battle hardened and well-armed students of these ulema are today at war with the educated elite, their institutions and the state itself while the ulema themselves are playing a double game – much in the manner of the elite. While they remain within the system, taking all the benefits that the state can bestow, they refuse to dissociate themselves from these unholy warriors.

Maulana Sherani agreed in the interview mentioned above that ulema and even the council he heads are not willing to take a position on the issue of terrorism. As we arrive from Aligarh to Charsadda, it appears the elite-ulema alliance in Pakistan has reached its limit.

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