Waging intellectual war on repression and class divides

Pakistan poses challenging problems for academics beyond politics and religion, writes John Morgan

August 4, 2011

Credit: Reuters
Rational discussion: Universities should provide a forum for debate

Islamist students at the University of the Punjab started getting angry when a male philosophy student was seen "sitting with a female class fellow", according to a press report.

Philosophy students and lecturers then mounted a campus protest in late June against the Islami Jamiat-e-Taleba (IJT), the student wing of Pakistan's largest Islamic party.

Days later, armed IJT members stormed a hall of residence where philosophy students lived, pointed a gun at a lecturer, fired shots in the air that ricocheted and hit a warden, and beat students so badly that at least two needed hospital treatment.

The volatile atmosphere at Punjab is not typical of universities in Pakistan. However, some observers declare that religious extremism has served to limit freedom of expression on campuses throughout the country. They also claim that religio- political violence has been a factor in the middle classes moving away from public universities in favour of private institutions.

Others believe that Pakistan's universities are beset by problems that go beyond religious repression, such as ethnic tensions and the tendency for public and private universities to serve different social cohorts.

With Pakistani society facing turbulence on several fronts, are its universities able to plot the intellectual course for a way out?

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of physics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), says that Pakistani universities are "more conservative than society in general".

"There are few ideas related to freedom of expression - or rights for minorities or women - expressed on campus as compared with, let's say, the English-language press," he says.

Hoodbhoy, who also teaches at Princeton University, is well known as a commentator in the Pakistani media and hated by some for his liberal views.

He says that in public universities "liberal ideas are frowned upon...You can bring guest speakers who are sympathetic to Islamist ideals. But it is very hard to bring someone who thinks the other way."

He blames university administrators, saying they feel that they have to "keep students from being 'polluted'".

Hoodbhoy adds: "In terms of intellectual freedom, there is no public university in Pakistan that studies other religions. There was an attempt to have an institute in Peshawar University (that did so)...It could not function."

Punjab was forced to move its new music department to a fringe campus in 2006, after the Jamaat-e-Islami party - whose student wing is the IJT - declared it "un-Islamic".

And music was also the subject of violent conflict at Peshawar in 2008, after elections for the lecturers' association were won by members of Jamaat-e-Islami. Lecturers joined with IJT students in a bid to stamp out music on campus, leading to a gunfight between Islamist and secular students.

Hoodbhoy gave public lectures at LUMS and Quaid-i-Azam University following the killing of Osama bin Laden, who was shot dead by the US military in May after living in Pakistan for at least five years.

In an essay, Hoodbhoy has described bin Laden's death as a signal that Pakistan "must decide whether to decisively confront Islamist violence, or continue with the military's current policy of supporting jihadi militants with one hand even as it slaps them with the other".

The issues around the death of bin Laden and the need to confront jihadism are "something that should concern every Pakistani", Hood-bhoy says. "It is in universities where there ought to be rational, sensible discussion of this. But there is not."

Indeed, an academic who speaks out could face danger. Asked if he has been threatened, Hoodbhoy replies: "How could that not be? I'm considered a pariah by many."

He has publicly spoken against Pakistan's blasphemy law. Have any other academics done so?

"I only know of maybe three - that is it," he says. "I had a public (TV) debate with two mullahs. It was a very ugly experience. It left me deeply depressed."

The debate - in front of an audience of students - followed the death of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was murdered in January by one of his own security guards after calling for a Christian woman to be spared execution for blasphemy.

According to an email distributed widely on the internet in January, Hoodbhoy says he pointed out in the TV debate that "the culture of religious extremism was resulting in a bloodbath in which the majority of victims were Muslims", and that debating the details of the blasphemy law "did not constitute blasphemy".

"The response? Not a single clap for me; thunderous applause whenever my opponents called for death for blasphemers."

Fleeing the violence

Matthew Nelson, lecturer in politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has researched the student political groups - secular Left and Islamic - that have waged a sometimes violent battle for control of Pakistani campuses since the founding of the state.

"They also influence the hiring and firing of faculty members, by putting up their own faculty candidates for jobs," Nelson says.

The tactic may not win results, but is a factor in campus relations.

Of the conflict between student political groups, Nelson notes: "Over time, a lot of students have fled the public sector (leading to) this expansion of the private sector. Many of the private universities have said: 'We forbid the activities of student unions.' For the middle classes, this is very attractive."

At private universities, Nelson says, students feel "somewhat more at liberty to wear different kinds of clothing" and able to "get away from political violence".

Asked about the prospects for challenging religious extremism, Hoodbhoy argues that Pakistani society will "eventually evolve to recognise the value of free thought. It can't be forced from outside.

"Of course, globalisation brings with it a huge amount of information and ideas that are freely available. It will become transformative at some point."

Drawing a distinction

Humeira Iqtidar, a research Fellow at King's College London, who has taught at Punjab and LUMS, draws a distinction between different kinds of Islamic fundamentalism in the country.

She says there are Islamists who are political in seeking to take over the state but not necessarily aligned with violence (including the Jamaat-e-Islami); "pietists" who are apolitical and seek to "change one person at a time"; and violent militants.

This last group has "never really had a strong presence in universities", Iqtidar says.

She points out that there are problems for universities and academics beyond religion.

"There is a huge thrust towards privatisation. A lot of universities are almost functioning now as tuition centres. There is very little time for research and very little interest in research." Social science departments have been "decimated by privatisation", Iqtidar adds.

"When students are paying fees, they want to go into degrees such as accounting, finance, IT, management."

And research can be restricted. "Criticising the army is very difficult in Pakistan," she says. "Criticising multinational companies and generating evidence to criticise them - that has become quite hard."

Iqtidar adds: "Then of course there are the religious restrictions. You cannot question the existence of God."

What is the situation like for female academics? In major urban centres, there is "a kind of recognition that we need female academics", Iqtidar says.

"In other places it is much more of an uphill battle for women. How they dress, how they carry themselves, how they interact with students - women are under much closer scrutiny on that than their male counterparts."

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, a sociologist at Quaid-i-Azam University and a Workers Party Pakistan activist, highlights the cultural differences between the nation's public and private universities, and also within its public institutions.

He sees Quaid-i-Azam as "probably the most open public university space in the country", while at Punjab - also a public institution - "the Jamaat is particularly strong".

Public discussions of the blasphemy law took place at Quaid-i-Azam, he says, and he expects the same exchanges to have occurred at LUMS.

Religious repression is only one element of a "broader repressive environment" present on some campuses, Akhtar explains.

He points to ethnic tensions at universities in Karachi and Sindh, where he says students and teachers are reluctant to discuss the aspects of Sindhi nationalism that "sometimes border on xenophobia".

He also highlights hostility between Balochs and Pakhtuns in Balochistan. Saba Dashtiyari, an Islamic scholar at the University of Balochistan and an advocate for Baloch rights, was shot dead in June.

Public universities tend to draw their students from lower middle-class and working-class families, Akhtar says, whereas private universities draw on more affluent students from English-language schools.

So the wealthier, higher-achieving students who are "the best equipped, in some ways, to be leaders and chart a future direction for the country are frankly alienated and isolated", he adds.

Pakistan's public spending on higher education is also low, Akhtar notes. He says universities have found it hard to recover from the repression of the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq (in place from 1977 to 1988), but "it is getting better".

"It is now no longer possible to completely man-manage who comes in and out, and (control) the kind of publications that are in the library. The online revolution is one reason; another more general one is the political environment - including the fact that the military is no longer the same force it was. It is changing, but it is slow going."


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