In elite academic institutions, we often make a knee-jerk and erroneous assumption that we are not responsible for the intolerance that now permeates our land. It is easy to blame the non-English speaking public sector and madrassas. We like to believe that we are not responsible for the fact that today, according to Ayesha Siddiqa, 56 per cent of elite youth do not want a secular state. We like to believe that we are not active agents, but are we?
Very few across Pakistan, elite or not, teach critical thinking which is absolutely essential and should be compulsory from an early age. Without the ability to think, education starts to resemble indoctrination. And in a country like ours, where schools have no option but to teach state-sanctioned propaganda under the guise of Pakistan Studies and Islamiyat, which aims to indoctrinate with a linear vision, this becomes even more necessary. One is not allowed to challenge the syllabus and is expected to regurgitate a single perspective – the chosen perspective. If you don’t, you fail and that is not an option most are willing to take. This sends a clear message: difference and diversity will not be tolerated.
We need to stop, pause and think about our current situation. Isn’t this just a logical outcome of these students having been taught NOT to challenge alternative perspectives, and blindly believe what their teachers and texts tell them? Indeed there are many who fail critical thinking courses because they stubbornly decided that what we, the liberal teachers, are doing is part of the grand Hindu-Zionist-CIA conspiracy just because we are presenting them with alternative perspectives and asking them to be sensitive to other views. They are, after all, a product of the society they live in and most do not have a living memory of the world before September 11.
What personally depresses me the most is that once the class is over, many choose to go back to their linear vision even though they know they are speaking in fallacies. Some even say, outright, “I choose not to think about any other perspectives because they challenge my worldview.” There are many reasons for this since they return to a culture which has a tunnel vision.
Most of my on-going research is based on extensive interviews with students in elite institutions who are outside the (state-sanctioned) political and religious norm today. Intolerance in academic institutions is growing at a visibly rapid pace. Because teachers are self-censoring out of fear, students are not being properly educated and many of them know it. They fear being fired and being viciously (mostly verbally) attacked by their students like some have been many times in the past. Teachers are afraid to use the word ‘Darwin’ or even dare admit that they believe in evolution instead of creationism in medical schools! Many refuse to bring up religion or politics in critical thinking classes, which defies the senses for critical thinking relies on challenging people’s deeply rooted, deeply ingrained perspectives. We live in a country where religion and politics is in the air we breathe. It must be acknowledged and it must be challenged.
When it comes to students, many say that they are also self censoring their comments now more than ever. They also feel that the students belonging to the religious right are a much bigger problem for them than the teachers. Many of them have been attacked, mostly by fellow students, for voicing their secular opinions or for presenting any other perspectives. For example, a student, let’s call him X, who openly said that Mumtaz Qadri is a murderer was verbally attacked and called a “liberal extremist.” This is despite the fact that he actually tried to reason with his opponent, explaining that Taseer was not an “infidel” but someone who just wanted justice. X used to openly voice his perspective until recently. Now he’s a bit wary and he’s not the only one.
Similarly, those who say that Ahmadis are Muslims and should NOT be killed also get attacked. I have witnessed students say that they would like to personally behead Ahmadis. I’ve heard them say this out loud in a class with Ahmadi students who are, more often than not, hiding their religious affiliation from the others. I’ve also heard rants against Hindus while a Hindu student has been sitting in the room. That is how shameless we have become.
Students also talk about “the look” they get from other students who blindly believe in the religious right rhetoric. “The look” is a stare so deep, so uncomfortable, that it silences and scares them. They know that these students will later cause problems for them. These very same students bang on people’s door for fajr namaz, demanding they say all their prayers at the mosque, which they then regulate.
In hostels there are students who don’t let other students play “haraam” music or constantly preach to them, dousing them with unwanted and unwarranted advice on how they should live their lives. Once a student was accosted in the middle of his campus by a religious student who told him that he should stop hanging around with girls. He had never met this student, who was junior to him, before. He is now scared, since there seems to be a sort of watchdog spy network amongst these students who are not at all afraid to intimidate and attack.
None of this is new of course, but the level of intolerance is higher and leading to more and more violence than it ever did before.
Education should aid evolution, but our students are going downhill. This is our reality but I will maintain that we are also to blame. By putting up with this and allowing students to intimidate as well as regulate others, we are guilty of perpetuating an intolerant culture. We should not be tolerant of the intolerant. By putting profit above quality and by not teaching critical thinking from an early age, we are a part of the problem. What we are breeding is an even more dangerous form of terrorist than the ignorant, brainwashed madrassa students who do not know any better. They were never taught to think unlike those who choose not to and continue to believe in conspiracies, which are trendy and perpetuated by celebrities like Ali Azmat. It is shocking when it comes from a well-dressed, articulate student in a suit attending the top business school in the country; one whose aim in life is to then move abroad, work for a multi-national that he is currently dismissing as an evil Zionist company. I wonder how many future Faisal Shahzads and Dr Aafias are out there. They were the result of an earlier, more tolerant generation. Now, we are witnessing the children of Zia in their full glory and splendour. Something has to be done and something has to be done now.
Nabiha Meher is a writer, a feminist and an unapologetic, outspoken eccentric who blogs at “I am woman, hear me roar”.