Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Enigma of Educated Pakistanis

There were reports that several lawyers - the same lawyers who participated in the "Lawyer's Movement" for democracy, greeted the killer of the Governor of Punjab with rose petals. How do we understand this? I actually don't know the answer. But here are two recent articles that address some of these issues. (also see an earlier post: How do students at elite Pakistani universities view the world?)

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.


emre said...

The same thing is happening in Turkey; much of what you wrote resonated with me. You had Zia, we had Evren. Following American advice, they gave us a heavy dose of Islam to supposedly inoculate us against communism. A case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. You have to be careful when taking advice from strangers...

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Salman, aren't you making the same mistake as Pervez Hoodbhoy did, who became a loathed and disgraced commentator on Pakistani politics, that never was, neither would ever be, his subject? I mean come on, you guys are scientists and are better-off discussing science, not the crap politics of Pakistan, which is even crappier than you'd ever imagine.
By dragging Zia in the middle, aren't you showing off your sheer ignorance to anything related to the political history of Pakistan? I mean, it was before Zia's govt when Ahmedis were declared non-muslims by the "people of Pakistan" through a "democratically elected enlightened government". And the same govt was overthrown by country wide protests in a religiously motivated movement...that was too, before this Zia thing.
Come on sir, let us discuss some Parallel Universe or Gliese 581c.

South Asian said...

I also found Professor Schweber's article interesting and one that ought to have initiated a useful discussion. In that context, the responses from the students to the article (there are 85 on the blog) tell us more about the students than the article.

Regarding the last comment by Dr. Hussain, I disagree with his position although he does make a valid point that there are pre-Zia issues that cannot be ignored. In my view these center around the peculiar nature of liberalism in Pakistan and are discussed in the latest post on the same blog where Prof. Schweber's article appeared:

Salman Hameed said...


You have a valid point about the pre-Zia era. But this is precisely the reason I connected the issues to the larger cultural/historical context, and linked it to the issue of identity. For example, the Deobandi-Barelvi violence is nothing new. This was happening in pre-independence India also. Religious parties were always trying to steer Pakistan in a particular direction. But Zia provided them with the means and platform to achieve influence over the political discourse of Pakistan. One can argue that the influence of these religious parties was already growing - and the example of Z.A.Bhutto's unconscionable compromises in this direction, including the heinous constitutional amendment targeting the Ahmadi community, are a prime example. But this does not excuse the wholesale changes in the curriculum and the society at large in the 80's. The struggle between the conservatives and the (more) liberal elements of the Pakistani society have clearly been tipped to the right since the 80s.

We can disagree about all of this. But at least we should agree about the fact that the level of intolerance in Pakistani today is perhaps at its highest level. And this is an issue that we all have to be concerned about - irrespective of political preferences.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

I am as concerned as any other Pakistani towards the seemingly "growing" trend of intolerance within the Pakistani society. Especially the role of media is particularly abhorrent in the current scenario which is literally cashing the whole situation and flaring up things. But at the same time I would bring forward two points. Firstly, you are trying to portray a bleak picture of educated segment of Pakistani society. The behaviour of a few does not and should not reflect a general picture. People in general, rural or urban, are as toleranat as they have always been and have been living together for centuries. Differences are there and situation sometimes turns ugly but that is nothing new. Yes in Zia's regime, the hardliners gained enormous strength but NOT general popularity. One armed man can subdue a dozen people. And this is a "necessary evil" has been kept alive by the successive governments. However, role of a few political commentators like the named person above try hard to smear the reputation of the educated segment of Pakistani society for God only knows why. As an example, he wrote a hateful article in Dawn newspaper a few days after 9/11 trying to emphasize that his own students were making merry of the situation and then turned the spotlight towards population in general through the same reason. None of the perpetrators of that incident were Pakistanis, yet he successfully brought the moderate element of our society under spotlight. I am afraid you are doing the same.
Secondly, do you ever wonder why the religious elements in Pakistan never actually win or come close to it in any election? The society portrayed by media is different from the society we live in.

Salman Hameed said...

"Firstly, you are trying to portray a bleak picture of educated segment of Pakistani society. The behaviour of a few does not and should not reflect a general picture."

You may be right. Here is the rosy picture: ALL major religious parties - and we are talking about major religious-political parties - supported the assassination. Here are the pictures of supporters at Qadri - the assassin's hometown. And apart from a couple of politicians, most have decided to stay mum about the assassination and the blasphemy law.

I know this is not all the population. Of course not. But we need more people speaking up when they hear about the gross injustices in their own countries. THAT shows the love of the country - because they want to see justice for all in the country. Forget about educated lawyers or these throngs of people celebrating a murder. It would pain me to write about 1 person celebrating such a murder. One has to stand up to these things. But I was equally proud of the lawyer's movement for democracy and I love the fact that there are gathering of astronomer in Karachi and Lahore. So don't assume that any criticism of Pakistan is meant to be "against" Pakistan. I hope you will write too against the injustices the blasphemy law and against the persecution of Christians and Ahmadies in Pakistan. After all, it is Pakistanis who have to stand-up for other Pakistanis. Hearing many voices against the blasphemy law and against the assassination will be far more convincing than to guess about the "silent majority". We know what the "vocal minority" thinks, but what really are the views of the "silent majority"? I actually don't know - as it has been mostly silent. But this is an important question.

M. Akbar Hussain said...

It is not the law but the misuse of it. And yes the blasphemy law has been misused to suppress the minorities or even settle the disputes. Recently a Muslim cleric and his son has been sentenced for life too by an opposing faction of the same religion. But then any law can be misused. Here are a few points in my mind:
1. We all know that the vast majority of Pakistanis are against the religious intolerance. No matter how much the local or foriegn media portrays the picture of our society as overwhelmingly religiously intolerant, one fact remains the same...the religious parties have never won a majority, nor they ever will, in Pakistani politics. Such is the state of affairs.
2. There were as many hindu extremists demolishing Babri mosque in India than there are people outside qadri's house. Yet somehow we love to believe that India is a moderate and tolerant society (even when terrorist outfits like Shiv Sena hold seats in Indian legislative such situation ever exists in Pakistan).
3. How many people in Germany spoke out against the release of the murderer of a muslim woman, who killed her inside court room in front of the law...her crime, she wore hijab which he didn't like. How many people in your beloved USA spoke out against the century long sentence of an already tortured and mauled Pakistani woman? Bring figures like a good scientist please!

It was a sad situation in Pakistan that someone was killed by a fanatic for speaking out his opinion, but law is here to take care of this legal matter. And wait for the next election to see the extremists once again humiliated as an insignificant minority by the nation, as they always do. What media portrays, I don't care. You don't have to worry about this country from across the Atlantic.

M. Akbar Hussain said...

"Recently a Muslim cleric and his son were sentenced for life too, after being accused of blasphemy by an opposing faction of the same religion."

emre said...

So what is the correct use of a blasphemy law?

Salman Hameed said...

We now have a new bogie-man for all ills in the society: The Media. Yes, it is at fault for many things - but at some point we have to speak up (!!) against those who were showering rose petals at Qadri and those who drove in throngs to his hometown. These numbers may be in hundreds. But we need to speak up against that. Not everything is someone else's fault. There is nothing wrong in sometimes saying that - yeah - this was wrong. And this has nothing to do with the media, American, Zionist, or Indian conspiracy, or the work of the Agencies, or the illiteracy levels, or other things - real or imaginary. Saying that this is wrong does not malign Pakistan. THIS is what I have been trying to say. There are bigots in Pakistan and there are good people in Pakistan. Bigoted actions should be labeled as such and good actions likewise. And the issue of Qadri's reception is in the former category.

This is irrespective of the debate over the blasphemy law, what is happening in India or Germany or Antarctica, or any other reasons. This is despicable by its own right.

And yes, there are bigots and idiots in all parts of the world - and people stand up to them in all parts of the world also (including in Pakistan - see opinion pages in Dawn or The Express Tribune). The fact of these things happening elsewhere is not an excuse for not speaking up here. It is otherwise a convenient excuse.

The blasphemy law itself is a separate debate. While capital punishment itself is an issue, but capital punishment for words? (and this is not even bringing in the low level of evidence of required for accusation in this particular case in the Pakistani legal system).

This is, I think, what Emre is referring to here.

South Asian said...

Dr. Hussain, I wish to offer a few thoughts for consideration:

1. Religious beliefs and voting preferences rarely overlap especially in societies where basic rights are not guaranteed independent of social relations. Voters are rational and vote for candidates who have access to jobs, services, police protection, etc. In Pakistan this patronage is not in the control of religious figures but of owners of property, primarily land. Therefore, the fact that religious parties get few votes in elections is not a good indicator of the religious beliefs of the voters.

2. Religious and national fundamentalism has increased all across the world, not just in Pakistan, for reasons that can be discussed separately. However, the rate of increase in Pakistan has been much more rapid than in other places. The kind of response that has ensued after this last murder is evidence of a qualitative change in the situation. This is a situation that needs to be taken seriously and analyzed with an open mind.

3. The law is failing to take its course in Pakistan. Incitement to violence, intimidation and issuing threats of elimination are all violations of the law but those resorting to these tactics (on whichever side of the issue they may be) are not being charged. The breakdown of the rule of law and its replacement by vigilante justice does not bode well for the future of Pakistan.

M. Akbar Hussain said...

Media is a business enterprise. It would dig out the most insignificant of the issues and make it headlines to steer people's thought if it gives it a few pennies more, than highlighting anything we can cheer about, like amateur astronomy stretchng in muscles in Pakistan (my own little world of astronomy :-)
But media is right. Afterall it is there to do business, not service.

Antarctica? what? Is there a HAARP installed there too? :-)
Anyways things happen in Germany, America, or Chile etc but no one blames the nation, the country or the educated segment (which is our last hope whatsoever) of the society as a whole. People like myself have suffered enough by the smear campaign against the moderate segment of our society by some intellectuals and we can bear it no more.

South Asian:
Your "analysis" is very subjective but interesting. I wish you had attached some figures or examples too.

South Asian said...

Dr. Hussain, It is difficult to substantiate claims in a short comment but I will make an attempt. The main issue is about the educated segment of society which as you remark is our last hope whatsoever. So, the issue that deserves attention is what has been happening to this educated segment?

In this context, the one big change that has occurred is in the radical change in curriculum and the re-orientation of history in the 1970's. Has this had any impact on the taught?

KK Aziz was one of the most eminent historians of Pakistan. His book 'The Murder of History' provides much evidence of the falsification of history and its implications on the world view of citizens.

The curriculum itself has been evaluated in detail twice, once by a group of academics and once by students themselves. Both evaluations find the curriculum to be transmitting a message of intolerance. These evaluations can be accessed in the following post:

It is therefore not entirely unexpected that the generation raised on this curriculum and falsification of history is less tolerant than earlier generations. The proof is the response of a segment of this cohort to the recent events.

The objective of education is to make each generation more accomplished than its predecessor. Can we honestly argue that this is what is happening in Pakistan? If we look at the bureaucracy, are its officials of the ability that was present in 1947? Has there been a leader with the capabilities of Jinnah? Instead, there has been a steep decline in quality. This should be a very worrying outcome if we believe that the educated segment is the last hope for Pakistan.

Semaphore said...

Off-topic: Another Christian woman got beaten due to blasphemy allegations, and her family is under threat:

I'm glad that my parents didn't raise me in Pakistan. It's a failed state, and most of that can be attributed to Islam, ignorance, and lack of education.

Had Pakistan been founded as a secular country it would not be in the failed state that it is in right now. Same goes for Saudi Arabia and all other countries where Islam is their official religion.

If Allah exists, it seems he hates all countries who are actually following the religion that he brought to Muslims through Angel Gabriel who passed it on to an ordinary man named Mohammed. Why? All Islamic countries are in very bad conditions like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. while the secular countries like USA, UK, etc. are way better and more advanced.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

I am glad too that your parents didn't raise you in Pakistan. Pakistan may or may not be a failed state, but you definitely have a failed mentality with uncontrolled outbursts of tantrums. Get professional help.

South Asian said...

As I had mentioned earlier, one of the problems is that terms and concepts that emerged out the European experience are transferred and used imprecisely in South Asia. "Liberal" is one such term that I had referred to in an earlier comment. A similar confusion is associated with the concept of secularism which is equated with godlessness in Muslim countries. We have tried to explain the concept on The South Asian Idea: