An intolerant educational system made me indifferent to the death of non-Muslims

Published: November 23, 2013
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For a better future for our children we must attach monumental significance to the task of reforming our educational system. Otherwise, we will just be raising fanatical individuals who have no value for human life. PHOTO: Reuters

For a better future for our children we must attach monumental significance to the task of reforming our educational system. Otherwise, we will just be raising  fanatical individuals who have no value for human life. PHOTO: AFP For a better future for our children we must attach monumental significance to the task of reforming our educational system. Otherwise, we will just be raising  fanatical individuals who have no value for human life. PHOTO: Reuters

As the Twin Towers came crashing down in New York City on September 11, 2001 an eight-year-old boy remained unmoved some 7,000 miles away in Lahore as the horrifying images unfolded before him. The boy then, descended into a mode of celebration upon discovering that the towers were in ‘non-Pakistani’ territory and that a significant majority of the dead were non-Muslims. 

This boy was no suicide bomber in the making. He was not the product of an extremist madrassa nor was he the son of a jihad veteran. In fact, this was a boy who was being educated at one of the finest institutions this country had to offer. Yet, the boy had failed to appreciate the value of human life.

He was insensitive to the deaths of more than 2,000 people. What is more alarming is that at the tender age of eight, this boy had justified his delight by distinguishing between the life of a Muslim and a non-Muslim.

As much as I hate to admit it, I was this boy.

In retrospect, I question why I showed such insensitivity to the events around me.

On what basis had I come to believe that the value of the life of a Jew or Christian was less than that of a Muslim?

How did I develop this extremely bi-polar perception of an ‘angelic’ East leading a crusade against the ‘demonic’ West?

After some pondering, I realised that my response to the events of 9/11 points towards an educational system that is deeply flawed, particularly the content of our textbooks. The factual inaccuracies, historical inconsistencies and the inherent bias that permeates these books has been criticised on numerous occasions – the most prominent being The Murder of History by KK Aziz.

However, beneath the veil of this customary disapproval lies a subtle but grave problem that still goes unnoticed. This problem is primarily two-sided. The first side is concerned with our treatment of the two identities that any Pakistani holds dear, that is, their nationality and religion, while the second arises from the content of our textbooks.

Think about it – Islam and Pakistan have always been portrayed as products of persistent persecution. Textbooks on Islamiat repeatedly drive the point home that Islam faced significant oppression before attaining the global status that it has today. Similarly, our history schoolbooks constantly highlight the cruelty faced by the Muslims of British India before acquiring the independent state of Pakistan.

It is not difficult to understand then, why this theme of persecution and oppression adopts such a paramount status in our treatment of Islam and Pakistan. Consequently, this breeds an instinctive feeling of vengeance against all those who fall outside the boundaries of Islam and Pakistan. Hence, children are subconsciously taught to view the people of this world through a binary lens – one is either a Muslim or a non-Muslim; a Pakistani or a non-Pakistani.

The second problem is concerned with the content of our textbooks. Books in both, Urdu and English are infused with tales that shed light on the lives of our national heroes. However, the irony is that while we have packed our textbooks with the bravery of Rashid Minhas and the valour of M M Alam, we  have ignored the compassion of Abdul Sattar Edhi and the accomplishments of Dr Abdus Salam. Intentionally or unintentionally, through our textbooks we have placed the traits of courage, bravery and valour on a higher pedestal than the traits of honesty, compassion and skill.

Unfortunately, this is the reflection of an educational system that contributes to the glorification of war at the expense of humanity.

In no way am I trying to suggest that Islamic and Pakistani history should be eliminated from our curriculum, and neither do I intend any disrespect towards our soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for the security of our homeland. I do, however, propose the adoption of a more balanced and refined approach towards teaching these subjects.

Where we celebrate a war hero, we must also celebrate a hero of science. Where we honour the bravery of an officer, we must also honour the compassion of a philanthropist. Where we recall the sacrifices of our Prophet (pbuh), we must also recall the sacrifices of Jesus.

Of course, such parity would require a shift in the very foundation of our educational system from psychological programming to a more open, pluralistic mode of critical thinking which is based on logic and reason. There is no doubt in my mind that unless we shift these foundations, we will not succeed in removing the ever-present ‘conspiracy theory’ syndrome as an explanation for all evil.

I grew up in a Pakistan where there was at least some sanctity of life and yet, I failed to recognise the intrinsic value of human life. I now fear the response of the next generation who unfortunately, have opened their eyes to a world of terror; a world where human life has been stripped of its very value and sanctity.

Thus, it is for the want of a better future for our children, that we must attach monumental significance to the task of reforming our educational system and waste no time in changing it. Otherwise, we will just be raising insensitive, fanatical and closed-minded individuals who have no value for human life.

And we will have only ourselves to blame.

Bakhtawar Bilal Soofi

Bakhtawar Bilal Soofi

A student of law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), he tweets as @bbsoofi (twitter.com/bbsoofi)

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