Monday, July 25, 2016


Should education in Pakistan be held hostage to politics?

An often heard phrase when visiting Turkey is: ‘’Turkey, Pakistan, ‘brother brother’.’’ But Turkey, Pakistan’s brotherly neighbour is somewhat troubled these days. Following a failed coup attempt against his government, President Erdogan has clamped down on those segments of society he perceives as being involved in the coup. As a result the Turkish ambassador in Pakistan has requested that all schools set up under the aegis of the Pak Turk Education Foundation in Pakistan should be closed. The reason Erdogan’s government wants these schools closed is that they are suspected of having ties to Fethullah Gülen  the exiled Turkish cleric, and of being run by the Hizmet movement set up by Gülen .
The Pak-Turk Education Foundation, which was awarded the Sitara-e-Eisaar by the President of Pakistan in 2006, runs schools in several countries around the world. Twenty eight of these schools are in Pakistan in Islamabad, Lahore, Quetta, Karachi, Hyderabad, Khairpur and Jamshoro, and have been since 1995. The schools employ some 1,500 trained teachers with an enrolment of around 10,000 students from pre-school to A levels. They are affiliated with the Federal Board of Intermediate and Secondary schools as well as with Cambridge for O and A levels.
The management of the schools disclaims any affiliation with the Hizmet movement or with any other political, religious or denominational movement stressing that the schools are ‘a philanthropic and non-political endeavor established for human development in the field of education for the benefit of all Pakistanis, especially the poor, needy and deserving sections of the society.’ They ‘provide necessary facilities in order to enable (students) to gain access to resources for productive self-employment and to encourage them to undertake activities for income generation and poverty alleviation to enhance their quality of life.’ The management further states that these schools provide ‘affordable quality education to all segments of population across the various regions of the country with significant amounts given as scholarship to the deserving students so that they may pursue their dream of getting a high-quality education.’
There has been no reason to doubt their word. No student from these schools has been involved in terrorism or any such activity in Pakistan; the Turkish government’s reservations regarding their involvement in the coup are based on suspicion, as a result of which the President has signed a decree closing down all institutions suspected of links to the Gülen. That means that 1,043 private schools, 1,229 foundations and associations, 35 medical institutions, 19 unions, and 15 universities will be shut down and their assets seized by the treasury. 
Although the schools disclaim any connection with him, here are some facts regarding Muhammed Fethullah Gülen: according to Wiki, Gülen  is a Turkish preacher, former imamwriter, political figure, founder of the Gülen movement known as ‘Hizmet’ which means ‘service’ in Turkish, and also the inspiration behind Hizmet’s largest organization, the Alliance for Shared Values. Gulen himself currently lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.
Gülen teaches a moderate version of Islam, and states that he believes in science, interfaith dialogue among the People of the Book, and multi-party democracy. Gülen is actively involved in debate concerning the future of the Turkish state, and Islam in the modern world. He has been described as an imam “who promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasises altruism, hard work and education” and as “one of the world’s most important Muslim figures.’’
If Pakistan does indeed give in to pressure from the Turkish government, the move will be ironic, given the number of madressahs currently operating in the country with established links to political, religious or denominational movements that have a more than suspected record of terrorism, violence and spurious religious indoctrination. Prominent among these is the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) which we can use as an example. LeT is a group banned in several countries and officially so in Pakistan, yet, the South Asia Terrorist Portal and Institute for Conflict Management report that the LeT continues to operate in Pakistan from its ‘200 acre headquarters at Muridke, 30 kms from Lahore, built with contributions and donations from the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia the biggest contributor.’
The headquarters at Muridke includes a madressah, hospital, market, large residential area for ‘scholars’ and faculty members, fish farm and agricultural tracts. The LeT also reportedly operates 16 Islamic institutions, 135 secondary schools, an ambulance service, mobile clinics, blood banks and several seminaries across Pakistan. It is known for its hard line views on religion.
LeT publishes its views and opinion through a website, an Urdu monthly journal Al-Dawa, and an Urdu weekly, Gazwa. It also It also publishes Voice of Islam an English monthly, and Al-Rabat a monthly in Arabic, as well as Mujala-e-Tulba an Urdu monthly for students, and Jehad Times an Urdu Weekly.’
The alleged founder of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is a man internationally wanted for terrorism connected with several terrorist attacks such as the November 2008 attack in Mumbai, who lives in a fortified house in Lahore.
While the majority of madressahs in Pakistan may be innocent most of them teach an extremist and distorted brand of religion and little or nothing else. According to a report by the Brookings institute dealing with these madressahs, ‘With no state supervision, it is up to the individual schools to decide what to teach and preach. Many provide only religious subjects to their students, focusing on rote memorization of Arabic texts to the exclusion of basic skills such as simple math, science, or geography. Students graduate unable to multiply, find their nation on a map, and are ignorant of basic events in human history such as the moon landing.’
So here’s the thing, since the government is said to be in a bit of a bind right now about how to deal with the situation in a suitably diplomatic fashion: With a population of over 199,090,000, Pakistan is the world’s seventh most populous nation with an average literacy rate of around half its population, less than half for women. Given such figures (or even otherwise) why should education in Pakistan be held hostage to politics, particularly the politics of other countries, however brotherly? That as well as a comparison of the personalities involved is a question that the Foreign Office should take into account when choosing a response to Turkey’s demands that Pakistan should shut down the Pak Turk Education Foundation schools on its territory.

Monday, July 18, 2016


Make peace not war
Derek Miller writes in the Guardian about the Strategic Bombing Survey produced by the US following the Second World War. The Survey summarised itself by recommending two important things: 1) “The great lesson to be learned in the battered towns of England and the ruined cities of Germany is that the best way to win a war is to prevent it from occurring.” 2) That for times of peace as well as in war, ‘’the highest possible quality and stature of personnel are to man the posts within any such organisation … quality, not numbers, is the important criterion.’’
The Second World War resulted in the death of anything between fifty to eighty million people. Given world population figures at the time that would be approximately three percent of the entire population of the earth, or more. Over two million of these persons were Indian.
It took seven years and cost more than ten million pounds for the Chilcot Report to emerge, all twelve volumes of it in the UK. It represented some slight acknowledgement of what the war in Iraq really was: a ghastly crime. About Britain’s choice to jointly invade Iraq with the US the Report says ‘the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.” About the role of British Administration in post war Iraq it says, ‘’Whitehall departments and their Ministers failed to put collective weight behind the task.”
As a direct result of the Iraq war over four million persons were displaced from Iraq and within it, and over a hundred thousand civilian and combatant deaths took place; the victims included men, women and children. There was malnutrition in Iraq, and abuse, torture and death in prisons such as Abu Ghraib. There have been other even more far reaching consequences of this war such as a sharp escalation of sectarian conflict and extremism both within Iraq and in other countries in the bloc, and the spillover of this conflict into the rest of the world, a process that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This worldwide violence, or terrorism as it is now better known is causing as many casualties as the war, and is likely to cause countless more unless something is done to prevent it. I use the word ‘prevent’ rather than ‘stop’ quite deliberately.
The lessons that ought to have been learnt, that were enumerated and pointed out in both these reports are being disregarded. Will we as a country, learn anything from the terrible consequences of the Iraq War and the wars before it, consequences which are there for everyone to witness and suffer through? Will we learn from the Chilcot Report which points out all the errors that were made, even though its remit is restricted to Britain?
Both reports lay stress on the quality of personnel, administration and leaders in war and in times of peace. Eventually they both state in no uncertain terms that war must be a last resort, something that must not indulged in unless all other avenues are exhausted.
In Pakistan the attitude towards the military and confusion between civilian and military roles is a clear indication that violence remains an easy and convenient option. We have never been more wrong. War is like the fire that feeding on the hearths of a myriad individual homes grows to mushroom over the entire world.
This is not an attempt to hand Pakistan the blame for the violence so prevalent today because Pakistan alone is not responsible, not by any means. But we must each mind the tiny fires we start at home to prevent a conflagration, and we must do this now. We may not be able to stop the George W Bushes or Tony Blairs of this world but one can attempt to stem the tide of militancy that has burgeoned right here in response to their actions, and if nothing else prevent a convenient excuse for war from being made available. Recent violent events in Belgium and France for example provide just such an excuse. It is unclear whose hands this is playing into, probably more than one, but the end result is always the death of innocent persons in massive number.
You’d think that the West would learn some lessons from the reports pushed under its very nose, but their response seems to be a retreat into greater conservatism, as is ours. The world appears to have become wary of the liberal path and the Trumps, Mays and Johnsons, and even Clinton who voted for the Iraq invasion, have centre stage which is the last thing that this war torn world needs. As much does the world need the Taliban and other so called ‘Islamic’ militants.
In a geopolitically sensitive country like Pakistan where are the ‘highest possible quality and stature of personnel’ to man sensitive posts? And the focused collective effort to invest in Pakistan and its long term prospects, for peace in the country, in the region and in the world? Instead the Prime Minster retains the portfolio of foreign affairs to himself, a particularly foolish brand of hubris, a statement justified by the results it has produced.
Above all in the supremely overarching sense where are the attempts to teach peace and alternatives to war in schools and the debate on those subjects at any level of education? The youth of this country is being liberally fed on misguided concepts of religion and world affairs, supplemented by a hefty dose of rabid Friday sermons. Bangladesh by the way is clamping down on those sermons following the spate of terrorist attacks on its soil. Ours is hardly the way to prevent conflict.
If another war is what the country desires it can be available any time. But it is peace we need, and it is peace the country wants. War is just what the very few desire. Sadly though the few might win the day and get what they want at this rate.

Monday, July 11, 2016


‘People prefer a familiar suffering due to fear of the unknown,’ Thích Nhất Hạnh (Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist)
Liberal, secular and logical are among the most hated and misunderstood words in Pakistan, used particularly by those who like to call themselves religious to condemn anything rational and alien. They forget or more likely have not considered that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (PBUH) preached a religion which was astonishingly liberal for that and all other times, a way of life with rationally logical systems that when applied, worked towards improving the secular existence of man as well as his hereafter.
Although Christianity and Judaism existed, Islam’s stress on monotheism was a startling step away from the polytheism that was the mainstream religion of the society it was born in the midst of. Its insistence on tolerance and kindness towards those with differing views was not a common aspect of society at the time, and not everywhere even now. Its injunctions on dealings with women, on treating them with kindness and consideration in general as well as in marriage and in case of divorce had no parallels in the contemporary society. With regards to treatment of the elderly, children, the disabled and sick, its views on education, the search for wider knowledge, economics, charity, courtesy, tolerance, justice, there was nothing about this religion that was not liberal if liberal is defined as a respect for people and opinions at variance with oneself, which is how it is generally defined. Islam, in short, has no place for the Tehreek-e-Talaba-e-Pakistans (TPP) and Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamats (ASWJ) of this world, not for their divisive views or their violent practices. Islam does not discriminate against people based on their religion, race, sex or age.
It is because Islam is not taught from a balanced standpoint, and so much that is taught as supposedly Islamic is not in the religion at all that these terms (liberal, secular, logical) are so reviled. It is why that aspect of Islam is feared and therefore rarely debated, so we lose out on that point of view. In a male chauvinist, feudal society like ours egalitarianism is a threat, and so it is actively challenged. As Thích Nhất Hạnh said, ‘People prefer a familiar suffering due to fear of the unknown.’’ It is why feudalism still exists, infanticide is very much alive, and honour killings and other threats to women in society remain firmly entrenched, and why ‘outsiders’, people of other faiths and sects are so threatened.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was one of those deeply spiritual men who well understood the familiar. He preferred to dispel the suffering around him rather than live with it, and he worked tirelessly towards that end. Perhaps it is through him that we can understand what it means to be liberal, secular and logical which may allow us to study Islam and the teachings of Muhammad (pbuh) from that point of view.
Today, when we celebrate the life of this greatest of Pakistan’s humanitarians we must understand his work for what it was, as liberal, secular and logical as Islam itself. Edhi went about his work in the most logical way by simply doing what had to be done when he made up his mind to do it, trusting in God and people’s generosity to help him along the way and he had this help all along. The Edhi Foundation was supported by more private donations than any other charity. Edhi never accepted donations from any government, either his own or another.
Outside most Edhi centres there is a small baby cradle in mute appeal against the infanticide which is so tragically common in Pakistan. ‘Do not kill (the baby),’ the sign beside these cradles reads. ‘Leave (the baby) in the cradle.’ The cradles are often used, host to innocent babies who may otherwise have been killed or abandoned as a result of poverty, or social stigma following an illegitimate birth. These children are brought up in the Edhi Foundation’s orphanages.
Unfettered by narrow exclusionist views, Edhi extended a helping hand to anyone who needed it regardless of the religion, race, sex or age of the person he was helping. Not for Edhi the hatred associated with this country’s sectarian bias. His homes sheltered Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and Shia, Suni or Ahmadi men, women and children alike and there was no preaching or attempt at conversion. Once asked why his ambulance service was available to non-Muslims as well, he responded, ‘Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.’
His tireless work has made Pakistan a better place for those who live here. The tremendous outpouring of love and grief at Edhi’s death is more eloquent than words of several things, of the appreciation the people of this country have for this man’s work. It also speaks better than any critique or analysis of the contrast between the people’s esteem for Edhi and for any other public figure in existence. It’s a lesson that wise persons would do well to note and learn from.
Edhi was not threatened by poverty, hard work or illness. He did not allow himself to be treated abroad for his last illness although the offer was made. Edhi was not threatened by his wife Bilquis who worked as hard right alongside him all their married life. Edhi was not threatened also by those who considered him an infidel because he was ‘liberal’. Many of those who fear the term and all it stands for admired Edhi for just those qualities which he possessed, although they have not succeeded in joining the dots. This may be the time for doing just that.
Edhi belonged to us in a way that nobody, and definitely not those who have property in Park Lane and public airlines at their disposal do. Edhi gave, and if he took anything from us it was always used for us, never for himself. Edhi belongs to us. We love you, Abdul Sattar Edhi, and thank you. You live on in our hearts.

Monday, July 4, 2016


Why should the religious brigade be above the law?

All those catchphrases: ‘Quit India,’ ‘Bremain or Brexit?’ ‘Make America great again,’ And here in Pakistan our home grown ‘Roti, kapra aur makan,’ and Asif Ali Zardari’s ‘Pakistan khapay’ in Sindhi, which funnily enough in Urdu and Punjabi means exactly the opposite of ‘Long Live Pakistan!’ That’s politicians for you. Their careers hinge on catchphrases and slogans by means of which they advertise themselves. But they’re not the only ones who thrive on slogans.
There’s another segment of society that uses slogans as labels with far more dire consequences, and that’s the religious brigade. ‘Haram!’ they label however innocuous a matter, making people draw back and pull their clothes around themselves because you have to show you’re purer than thou. They call people ‘kafir’ or cry ‘blasphemy’ and then you can do with the person or people what you wish, even burn them in a kiln such as that wretched couple burnt to death for alleged blasphemy, in their case for allegedly desecrating the Quran. Why anyone would commit such desecration particularly in a country like Pakistan with rabid mobs breathing down their necks is beyond me. But haram this, halal that, fahash (risqué) uryani (obscenity), kafir (non-believer), Jahanum ka azab (hell fire), and so on until the public in its confusion puts Al-Bakistan number plates on cars and feels it has done its bit.
Often someone somewhere gets something out of the situation even if it’s just a kick although at times the reward is more substantial. In the blasphemy case at Joseph Colony in Lahore in 2013, a whole colony of Christians living in makeshift homes conveniently fled vacating their homes when one of them was accused of blasphemy and the colony was torched. On that occasion the reward was the chance of claiming valuable industrial land on which the colony was located. None of the looters and vandals were convicted. A land dispute was also the reason behind the conviction of Ayub Masih in 1996, although he was mercifully exonerated by the Supreme Court after all other courts convicted him.
Religion, meant to be a mercy, has a brutal flipside when used as a weapon.
If the process works one way it ought to be able to work the other way too in the interests of even handedness. So what do you when some of these label makers, the so called custodians of public spirituality themselves behave in ways that could earn them some penalties? When for example a representative of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam Senator Hafiz Hamdullah verbally abuses a woman and tries to physically assault her and the entire incident takes place on public television, although such behavior is despicable whether it takes place in public or in private. Fahashi? Blasphemy? Blasphemy is after all defined as irreverent behavior towards something sacred and such behavior shows an irreverence towards the injunctions Islam which does not sanction it, and we hold Islam and its injunctions sacred. Instead the Senator has been granted bail in the case.
And then there’s Maulana Samiul Haq, and what do you know, he’s also from the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, from another faction. This gentleman ‘warned’ the co-chairperson of the PPP Asif Ali Zardari against using improper language against the Madressah Darul Aloom Haqqania, saying that he, the Maulana would reveal some less than salubrious details about Mr Zardari if he persisted in using such language.
Why, Maulana sahib, if it is in the national interest to relate such details, you should be doing so in any case, madressahs and improper language notwithstanding. But if those details are irrelevant to national interest perhaps you should hold your peace, once again anything else notwithstanding. Blackmail, because that’s what this smacks of…or perhaps one should call it aibtizaz (see, you have to say it in Arabic because it carries a clout and sticking power that English doesn’t seem to possess in such cases) does not sit well with anyone but particularly with someone with your supposed credentials, don’t you think?
As in the case of Hafiz Hamdullah, this open threat, since that is what it was, went unheeded and has resulted in no consequences for Mr Samiul Haq.
It is a mark of democracy and good governance and of religion itself that everyone should be equally accountable under the law, but clearly, in this country so called religious leaders are above the law, a sign of far right wing non-egalitarian extremism. I know a few labels too.
One does not often quote any of Pakistan’s Presidents in a serious vein, it is generally not worth the effort, but the term ‘enlightened moderation’ coined by the former President Pervez Musharraf at the OIC Summit Conference in Malaysia in 2002 is worth recalling. It means the practice of following an enlightened ‘moderate’ version of Islam as opposed to the extremist, irrational version.
Pakistan, if it is to stamp out extremism and violence must strive for an element of reason in its religious views, and also treat its citizens equally under the law. As mentioned in my previous column, experiences of injustice and discrimination are among the major forces that lead to militancy. Deal with that, and Pakistan khuppay (the Sindhi version)!