An article in last Sunday's NYT finds a split in thinking, primarily along their age:
But the lawyers’ stance is perhaps just the most glaring expression of what has become a deep generational divide tearing at the fabric of Pakistani society, and of the broad influence of religious conservatism — and even militancy — that now exists among the educated middle class.
They are often described as the Zia generation: Pakistanis who have come of age since the 1980s, when the military dictator, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, began to promote Islam in public education and to use it as a political tool to unify this young and insecure nation.
Today, the forces he set loose have gained such strength that they threaten to overwhelm voices for tolerance in Pakistan’s feeble civilian government. They certainly present a nagging challenge for the United States.
All graduates of different Pakistani universities, they insisted they were liberal, not religious conservatives. Only one had religious training. They said they had all taken part in the lawyers’ protest campaign in 2007 and 2008, and that they were proud that the movement helped reinstate the chief justice.
Yet they forcefully defended Mr. Qadri, saying he had acted on his own, out of strong religious feeling, and they denied that he had told his fellow guards of his plans in advance. He was innocent until proved guilty, they said. They have already succeeded in preventing the government from changing the court venue.
In their deep religious conviction, and in their energy and commitment to the cause of the blasphemy laws, they are miles apart from the older generation of lawyers and law enforcement officials above them.This may be part of an explanation. Zia (with no small help from the US) did change the fabric of Pakistan's society, but there are deeper and older issues at play also. For example, there are serious class differences that are also embedded in the education system (Cambridge system, English Medium, Urdu Medium, and the Madrassas - all in descending order of classes). So often (not always) the fate is sealed when one enters the first grade. By the way, I was in secondary school when Zia started making serious changes to the curriculum - so I too had a taste of this change.
But then here is a fascinating (and provocative) article by Howard Schweber, an associate professor of political theory and communications University of Wisconsin-Madison, who taught at LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences) for a semester last year. LUMS is one of the top (if not the top) universities in Pakistan. Please note that this article was written last summer. Howard finds that in many ways, the students are just like at any other place in the US. He also find students to be bright, intelligent, and driven. But there are also some oddities: First, the issue of class (as in being "elite") is quite prominent. Second, there is a serious issue with a lack critical thinking skills and a dearth of general knowledge about history and philosophy outside of the region:
That was only the beginning of a slowly dawning realization that LUMS students are palpably uncomfortable with abstract concepts and what people in Education Schools call “critical thinking skills.” When I raised this point to faculty and alumni, every one without exception acknowledged the problem, and pointed to the system of secondary education as the culprit. Undoubtedly the point is correct, but I think there is a deeper observation to be made here. In addition to being uncomfortable with abstract concepts, these students and their families seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of knowledge that is not justified by an immediate practical application. That discomfort extends to a reluctance to embrace basic scientific research as well as the humanities. I heard from students who wanted to study physics but whose parents insisted that they become engineers, students who wanted to become historians but whose parents did not see the point to being an historian. The same attitudes exist in other places, to be sure, but among LUMS students it seemed to be universal. There is a classic saying about immigrants to America: “the first generation are factory workers so the second generation can be lawyers so the third generation can be artists.” I mentioned that saying to a student and he found it deeply puzzling.
Part of the reason for the discomfort with abstraction may have to do with a curiously limited range of background knowledge. My students – many of whom, again, had graduated from the finest schools – knew almost literally nothing of non-Pakistani history and culture. The reason is not that Pakistan is culturally isolated – far from it. At one point I found myself confronted by a room full of students who had an exhaustive knowledge of the movies that were Oscar candidates last year but among whom the vast majority had never heard of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. In general, students had no idea – not even a wrong idea! – about the significance of the French Revolution or World War I, the history of nationalism and empires, the contents of the Book of Genesis, the Scientific Revolution or the Renaissance. Again, when I pressed students, faculty members, and alumni, the answer was always the same: the fault lies with the secondary school curriculum, and particularly the fact that during Zia’s rule secondary school curricula were shifted to emphasize Pakistan studies and Islam at the expense of everything else. Again, that can only be a very partial explanation. But it is worth noting that this lack of cultural literacy helps feed the culture of conspiracy theories for which Pakistan is justly famous.I can relate to many of the examples above - since I went into astronomy, and had to face some baffled criticism about the decision. But that story some other time.
Towards the end of his article, Howard Schweber addresses the complex perceptions of overtly religious students by the more secular-leaning segment of LUMS:
Which brings me back to the “mullahs.” Over and over I was warned, by faculty members and students alike, to beware of these students. When I mentioned some of the texts that I was teaching, a senior colleague was first horrified, then said “well, you are probably all right because it is the summer.” All of this fed into a rather well settled narrative of universities as bastions of secular knowledge (and a fair amount of partying in the men’s dorm, I hear), besieged by the forces of religious extremism.
But then I got to know a few students who are, themselves, religiously observant. They tell a different story. Their claim is that the so-called “mullahs” are two groups of students. One group, led by an instructor, follow a Sufi order called Naqshbandi, while the other is associated with “Tableeghi Jamaat.” Neither group, according to these students, has any interest in confrontation. The same students insist that there have never been any incidents of religious students harassing secular students or faculty or disrupting classes, and that the college Disciplinary Committee would make short work of any student who tried to do so. By contrast, the same students complain of a pervasive anti-religious bias. In an e-mail, a student wrote: “I remember that in one particular class a student with beard came late to class, which is a normal practice, and instructor said to him sarcastically, ‘Oh go back and offer prayer etc. because these things (courses) are not important…’”
So there are two narratives at work here. Which one is right, is one more right than the other, are both simultaneously operative? Which narrative captures more of the experience at the University of Punjab, which captures more of what goes on at LUMS? I have no idea – I only know that no one disrupted my classes or threatened me, but that many people seemed to feel compelled to call my attention to the possibility of such events.
The more I think about it, this last mystery about Pakistan’s universities is a mystery about Pakistan. I have no clear idea about the relationships among different approaches to Islam and secularism among Pakistan’s elites. Traditionally, Pakistanis have been “the kind of Muslims who go to shrines,” but the nation has a death penalty for blasphemy and just a few months ago “Death to Qadianis” banners used to festoon the boulevards of Lahore. And one Pakistani student, in front of other students, told me “as a good Muslim I would never say a’salaam back if an Ahmedi said a’salaam to me.” The other students said nothing, in a class devoted to examining theories of democracy and multiculturalism. As I walked around the campus, I observed the students lounging on the stairs, men and women together, but then a sociologist tells me that among the very people I am observing more than 85% will enter arranged marriages and that more than 90% of those marriages do not permit the wife to file for divorce.
So maybe these aren’t “just college students” after all. But what are they, this next generation of the nation’s elite? Individually I can tell you that they are bright, thoughtful, witty, principled, socially and intellectually attractive young adults with widely varying worldviews, limited only by a lack of education and culturally imposed limitations, especially the women. But as a group? If you ask me “what are Pakistani college students all about?” I can only answer that I find it a mystery.This is a crucial question and may be related to Pakistan's search for identity (though, some age and class separation mentioned above for the case of lawyers may also be at work here). Since independence, there has been confusion about the role of religion in Pakistani politics and society. After all, this was a country formed on religious boundaries, but founded by Jinnah, who was a secularist. In addition, we disowned the Moghul heritage (since we are not Indians), and appropriated Arab history as our own ("we" were in Al-Andalus), even though this sentiment of solidarity is not shared by Arab Muslims. Perhaps, the only option then is to show that Pakistanis are more Muslims than all other Muslims, and the current manifestation of that is in the form of religious intolerance towards minorities are other Muslim sects.
In any case, read the full article here.