Originally published as “Children of Zia” in Dawn blog. Based on a talk at a conference on women, religion & politics where I was the token under 30 feminist.
A cousin recently said to me: “growing up in the 80s, we knew who the enemy was.” He (for it was almost always a he), was glaringly visible, blatant & vocal. Today, with an ever increasing amount of beards in stomach & voluntarily oppressed women, we no longer know who the enemy is. It could be your neighbour, your teacher, your student, your driver, your guard etc.
In elite academic institutions, we make a knee-jerk & erroneous assumption that we are not responsible for this phenomenon. It’s easy to blame the non-English speaking public sector & madrassas. We like to believe that we are not responsible for the fact that today, 56% of elite youth do not want a secular state. We like to believe that we are not active agents, but are we?
In schools across Pakistan, elite or not, very few of us teach critical thinking, which, in my opinion, is absolutely essential and should be compulsory from an early age. We need to stop deluding ourselves into believing that we are truly educating. Without the ability to think, education starts to resemble indoctrination. And in a country like ours, where private schools have no option but to teach state sanctioned propaganda under the guise of Pakistan Studies & Islamiyat, which aims to indoctrinate with a linear vision, this becomes even more necessary. One is not allowed to challenge the syllabus and one is expected to regurgitate, over and over again, one perspective, the chosen perspective. If you don’t, you fail & that’s not an option most are willing to take. The message this sends is difference & diversity will not be tolerated.
We need to stop, pause & think about our current situation. Isn’t this just a logical outcome of these classes? And isn’t this because these students have been taught NOT to challenge alternative perspectives & blindly believe what their teachers & texts tell them? Indeed there are many who fail critical thinking courses because they stubbornly decided that what we, the “liberal” teachers, are doing is part of the grand Hindu-Zionist-CIA conspiracy just because we are presenting them with alternative perspectives and asking them to be sensitive to other views. “Pious” teachers prey on their sensibilities and tell them that those of us who teach them to think outside the box are “agents” whose aim in life is to “destabilise” Islam & Pakistan, again perpetuating a culture of indoctrination through fear. These kids are taught to fear thought, over & over again. They end up with persecution complexes so strong that it gets in the way of all thought. They are, after all, a product of the society they live in and most do not have a living memory of the world before 9/11.
What personally depresses me the most is that once the class is over, many choose to go back to their linear vision even though they know they are speaking in fallacies. Some even say, outright, “I choose not to think about any other perspectives because they challenge my worldview”. There are many reasons for this since they return to a culture which has a tunnel vision. Brains rust if not used, especially in Pakistan.
Most of my on-going research is based on extensive interviews with students in elite institutions who are outside the (state sanctioned) political & religious norm today. Intolerance in academic institutions, places that should, ideally be safe spaces, is growing at a visibly rapid pace. Because teachers are self-censoring out of fear, students are not being properly educated and many of them know it. They fear being fired for it has happened to someone who challenged Wahabi Islam in a critical thinking class. They fear being viciously (mostly verbally) attacked by their students like some have been many times in the past. Teachers across the land are afraid to use the word Darwin or even dare admit that they believe in evolution instead of creationism in medical schools! I’ve spoken to many who refuse to bring up religion or politics in critical thinking classes, which, to me, defies the senses for critical thinking relies on challenging people’s deeply rooted, deeply ingrained perspectives. We live in a country where religion & politics is in the air we breathe. It must be acknowledged and it must be challenged.
I may seem like I’m on a tangent here, but this is related to our precious youth. When a teacher is afraid to challenge hate speech in class, the students who don’t share that retrogressive perspective will inevitably suffer. When teachers allow intolerant students to intimidate them as well as the rest of the class, then that teacher is doing a massive disservice. That is the kind of teacher who should be fired instead of those who don’t put up with this in their classroom.
Most of the students I’ve spoken to say that they are also self censoring their comments now more than ever. The vast majority also feel that the students belonging to the religious right are a much bigger problem for them than the teachers. Many of them have been attacked, mostly by these students, for voicing their secular opinions or for presenting any other perspectives. For example, a student, let’s call him X, who openly said that Mumtaz Qadri is a murderer, was verbally attacked and called a “liberal extremist.” This is despite the fact that he actually tried to reason with his opponent, explaining that Taseer was not an “infidel” but someone who just wanted justice. Sadly, our youth have become so brainwashed that X’s perspective was instantly dismissed. X used to openly voice his perspective until recently. Now he’s a bit wary & he’s not the only one.
Similarly, those who say that Ahmadis are Muslims & should NOT be killed for having beliefs different from the sunni norm, also get attacked. I have personally witnessed students say that they would like to personally behead Ahmadis or just about anyone who doesn’t agree with their Wahabi vision of Islam. I’ve heard them say this out loud in a class with Ahmadi students who are, more often than not, hiding their religious affiliation from the others (they tend to let me know). I’ve also heard rants against Hindus while a Hindu student has been sitting in the room. That’s how shameless we have become.
Another example of peer intimidation is that of a minority girl who was voicing her views on prostitution & marriage, stating that she thought prostitutes should be allowed to get married legally. She said this out loud only because she thought she was talking to liberal, secular students like herself, only to discover that they were extremely intolerant when she ended up being verbally attacked so viciously that she had to leave. They were not even willing to listen what she had to say. They were not even willing to acknowledge the validity of her well thought out point of view.
Students also talk about “the look” they get from the students who blindly believe in the religious right rhetoric. “The look” is a stare so deep, so uncomfortable, that it silences & scares them. They know that these students will later cause problems for them. These very same students are effectively terrorists roaming free, banging on people’s door for fajr namaz, demanding they say all their prayers at the mosque, which they then regulate. One student who went to his campus mosque in a red shirt was kicked out by the fundamentalist students. Their justification? Red is “inappropriate” in a place of worship.
In hostels there are students who don’t let other students play “haraam” music or constantly preach to them, dousing them with unwanted & unwarranted advice on how they should live their lives. The preaching certainly isn’t restricted to the hostels. And even when students try to avoid them, they will eventually find them & preach to them sometimes for hours on end. A few months ago, I spoke to a student who was accosted in the middle of his campus by a religious student who told him that he should stop hanging around with girls. He had never met this student, who was junior to him, before. He’s scared now of course, since there seems to be a sort of watchdog spy network amongst these students, students who are not at all afraid to intimidate & attack.
None of this is new of course, but the level of intolerance is higher & leading to more and more violence than it ever did before. Each and every student I have interviewed say that this is getting worse year by year, drone by drone.
Education should aid evolution, but our students are going downhill. This is our reality, a reality that sends shivers down my spine. But I’ll maintain that we are also to blame. By putting up with this & allowing students to intimidate as well as regulate others, we are guilty of perpetuating an intolerant culture. We should not be tolerant of the intolerant. By putting profit above quality & by not teaching critical thinking from an early age, we are part of the problem. What we are breeding is an even more dangerous form of terrorist than the ignorant, brainwashed madrassa student who doesn’t know any better. He was never taught to think, never allowed to even think about having a thought of his own. Our private students, on the other hand, know how to think but choose not to. They choose to become intolerant and they choose to believe in conspiracies, which are trendy & perpetuated by celebrities like Ali Azmat. It is shocking when it comes from a well dressed, articulate student in a suit attending the top business school in the country; one whose aim in life is to then move abroad, work for a multi-national that he is currently dismissing as a evil Zionist company & reap the benefits of a Western lifestyle. I shudder when I think about just how many future Faisal Shahzads & Dr Aafias are out there. They were the result of an earlier, more tolerant generation. Now we’re witnessing the children of Zia, in their full glory & splendour. Something has to be done & something has to be done now.