COMMENT: Uncritical thinking —Saleem H Ali
Similar to other social movements, religious motivation has often been linked to violence as well as building peace. Like any powerful human phenomenon, religion can be used to either end and has tremendous potential to instil pugnacity as well as cooperation
Despite the release of policemen abducted by the Lal Masjid cadres, anxiety about the situation in Islamabad continues. The government is clearly in the most uncomfortable position in dealing with the problem, which requires, among other things, a look at “absolutist” educational institutions and their rejection of critical reasoning.
Perhaps the starkest example of such an educational institution was the “University of Dawah [evangelism] and Jihad” set up in the mid-eighties in Peshawar by Professor Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf. The founder of this “university” which produced acrimonious alumni such as Ramzi Yousef and whose aim it was, and remains, to quash critical reasoning has been one of the top warlords during the Afghan war and later the civil war. Since 2001 he has been vying for supremacy within the Karzai government. To call this institution a “university” is particularly unfortunate.
This is not peculiar to a particular country or religion. Institutions that stifle critical reasoning and thrive on agenda-driven education can be found at many places.
In the United States, one of the leading lights of the evangelical movement with absolutist views about Christian supremacy, Reverend Jerry Falwell, died last week. His well-known Liberty University produced a legion of activists, many of whom have found employment in prominent government positions. Falwell was as much valorised by his disciples and with as much fervour as Maulana Ghazi of Lal Masjid is by his minions. While the tone of his messages was more measured, he clearly stirred militancy in his own way.
Consider that only a few days after his passing, a young student from Liberty was arrested with a cache of bombs. Authorities in Virginia indicated that Mark David Uhl intended to use the bombs to “stop protesters from disrupting Falwell’s funeral”.
It should be noted here that like Christianity, Islam is a strongly evangelical religion (unlike Judaism). Even the more enlightened institutions of higher learning such as the Islamic University of Islamabad, which offer courses on global trade and environmental law, have a “Da’wah Academy”. This should, itself, not be a cause for concern, since Islam ordains that there must be “no compulsion in religion”. However, problem arises when other competitive forces of evangelism are stifled in countries like Saudi Arabia, leading to an autocracy of proselytisers who claim monopoly over communication.
Similar to other social movements, religious motivation has often been linked to violence as well as building peace. Like any powerful human phenomenon, religion can be used to either end and has tremendous potential to instil pugnacity as well as cooperation. Similarly, we can find ways of harmonising the best of Eastern and Western traditions, if absolutism is avoided. There are some remarkable stories to be told of graduates of Islamic schools that have been able to bridge their education with Western traditions.
Consider the case of Bakhtiar Effendy, who started his formal schooling in the Pesantren Pabelan in central Java, Indonesia, in the early 1960s. While at that Islamic boarding school, he received an American Field Service scholarship and attended Columbia Falls High School in Montana. Subsequently, he returned to Jakarta for his college degree and then went back to the States for his doctorate at Ohio State University. Following his doctoral degree, Dr. Effendi returned to his homeland and joined the faculty of the Islamic State University in Jakarta. Such meandering interactions between East and West, while rare, are possible between educational traditions and deserve more careful study and analysis.
The use of educational institutions for political ends is a well-established tradition across cultures and societies. Exemplified recently by anti-war activism at universities in the West as well as the rise of Marxist movements in schools in South America or the Ayatollah ascendancy at Tehran University, institutions of learning are often places of revolution. Ideas invigorate young minds to action but Alexander Pope’s prescient observation of “a little learning being a dangerous thing” is just as true today. While the independence of educational institutions must be maintained, some level of quality assurance and critical reasoning is also essential to ensure that captive audiences of students are not manipulated.
The Lal Masjid case clearly shows us the need for instituting a peace-building curriculum in all educational institutions across Pakistan. We shall explore the efficacy of such a curriculum in this space subsequently. Until then, let us reflect on the words of Robert Frost:
“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or self-confidence”.
Saleem H Ali is associate dean of graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org