COMMENT: Educating for peace —Saleem H Ali
The lessons gained from the peace education programme in Sierra Leonne are particularly instructive. Religion was a salient part of the conflict resolution pedagogy in this case and Muslims and Christians worked together to use theology as a means of peace-building
The Lal Masjid saga continues with a new actor on the stage: the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, who paid a remarkable visit to the beleaguered mosque and its renegade clerics on June 6. This turn of events is quite astounding, as the Saudi government has been claiming to reform its educational system to encourage peaceful coexistence with differing theological perspectives. How does placating a cleric who wants to impose his interpretation of shariah on 150 million people help in resolving the larger conflict between Islam and society?
Two weeks ago I promised readers of this space that I would provide some further details about the implementation of a peace education curriculum, particularly in Islamic schools. So here are some points to consider, especially for the Saudi ambassador.
There is growing empirical evidence that effective intervention in early educational programmes can reduce aggression and conflict from endogenous and exogenous sources. Thus a child with a predisposition to aggression due to genetic factors or environmental challenges at home (such as aggressive parenting) might also benefit from specific conflict mitigation programmes in school. In a recent study of classroom-based cognitive behavioural intervention, Dr Ann Daunic tested the ability of such programmes in Florida to: a) increase students’ knowledge of social problem-solving strategies and b) improve ratings of student aggression and anger/expression control. The six-step training programme was found to have significant positive impact in both these categories.
The quality of education in the earliest years can thus have a strong influence on the ability of students to manage their anger impulses, which are likely to be more pronounced in conflict zones such as Islamabad’s streets these days. In cases where they might be deprived of such efforts or get negative reinforcement through provocative indoctrination, the impact on conflict escalation can be profound. At the same time, appropriate educational intervention in even the most horrendous conflicts can play an important role in peace-building.
At the heart of such efforts is a genuine peace education curriculum that is culturally appropriate but embraces the universal principles of human justice. UNICEF has defined peace education as follows: “The process of promoting the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values needed to bring about behaviour changes that will enable children, youth and adults to prevent conflict and violence, both overt and structural; to resolve conflict peacefully; and to create the conditions conducive to peace whether at an intrapersonal, interpersonal, inter-group, national or international level.”
The development of a peace education programme in Sierra Leonne, following the civil war in 2004, illustrates the speed with which communities can move towards reconciliation. Following the war, the largest peace-keeping force in the country has also been from Pakistan and there has been considerable cultural exchange between the two countries as a result of their presence. The lessons gained from the peace education programme in Sierra Leonne are thus particularly instructive. Religion was a salient part of the conflict resolution pedagogy in this case and Muslims and Christians worked together to use theology as a means of peace-building.
Now let us turn our attention to Pakistan’s madrassas. There has been very limited psychological testing of madrassa children due to problems of research access. However, I found a study by a former graduate student at the University of Punjab, Marriam Saeed (now Marriam Khan), who did a Masters thesis project in 1995 comparing the level of aggression between eighty government school male students and eighty male madrassa students. There was a statistically significant difference in the aggression measures, administered through a psychological testing survey, between the madrassa students and the government school students in the categories of physical aggression and hostility. The author attributes some of these findings to harsh corporal punishment in madrassas, though that seems to be fairly common across all schools in Pakistan.
So how then can we address the problem? Several initiatives are underway to implement peace education in an Islamic context. While occasional references to Islam as being etymologically linked to “peace” is often made by Muslims, a comprehensive peace education curriculum is generally absent. Most notable among recent scholarship on nonviolence and peace-building within Islamic learning is a book by Mohammed Abu-Nimer titled Nonviolence and peace-building in Islam, in which he uses theories from linguistics to argue that there is enough of a repertoire of peace-building narratives within Islamic tradition to be utilised for conflict mitigation even within a theological context.
The Council on Islamic Education, based in California, is also trying to professionalise the curriculum in Islamic schools and promote greater tolerance and context to Islamic texts by differentiating between jihad (a just struggle for rights) and hirabah (unjust war) through a detailed training programme. According to the training manual: “The jurists prohibited hirabah because Islam places an absolute value on public safety and protection as God-given human rights. Hirabah is punishable by the most severe penalty mentioned in the Qur’an, where it is called fasad in chapter 5, verse 33, meaning in this case mayhem and destruction.”
The work of the International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) and their growing partnerships with madrassas in Pakistan, to promote peace education within Islamic tradition, is quite promising. They have also gone beyond preaching to the choir and visited some of the more radicalised madrassas such as the Jamia Binoria in Karachi and the Dar-ul-uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattaq. There appears to be palpable impact of the ICRD’s programs in Pakistan as exemplified by the following quote from one of a madrassa administrator whom they visited:
“I felt all the anger and rage I have carried for so many years washed away from my being . . . the ten days spent on learning and in reflections helped me put the pieces together to reach out in peace instead of constantly burning with anger.”
The United Nations mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica, where I usually spend a couple of weeks a year, has also held a series of peace-education efforts in the madrassas of Bangladesh and Tajikistan, led by Dr Amr Abdallah. We are now working to potentially expand these efforts to include programmes at Islamic schools within diaspora communities in Canada and the United States.
So, gentle readers, there is indeed some light at the end of the red tunnel. Islam is a religion with tremendous potential for peace but we cannot tolerate the intolerant maulanas simply to be “politically correct”. The well-intentioned visit by the Saudi ambassador has only emboldened Maulana Ghazi, when he needs to be marginalised. While the Ghazi brothers’ willingness to let women attend school is a step ahead of the Taliban, their general tone of exclusion rings of perilous bigotry, which Muslims should not embrace.
Patience is key in dealing with this matter, but compromise is not an option on the basic and precious tenets of liberty that our Faith and our Constitution protect. Let the waiting game continue with nonviolence and a persistent call for peace education within an Islamic context. If envoys are to visit the besieged mosque, let that be their sole message, rather than trying to engage the unreasonable demands which are being made from within their walls.
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