Posts Tagged ‘Intolerance’

What Can the Social Sciences Do for Us?

June 20, 2017

By Sara Fatima

This post is in response to a recent article by Professor Mohammad Waseem (‘An ignoramus par excellence,’ The News, June 11, 2017) in which he argues that the majority of the professional, political, bureaucratic and military elites of Pakistan are uninformed about the larger issues pertaining to our social, national and global life. Some of the issues he mentions are the weakness of our foreign policy, increasing social violence, population explosion, water shortage and cultural practices oppressing women and minorities. Professsor Waseem attributes this outcome to an insularity of vision and thought which, in his view, stems from a lack of exposure to the social sciences in our educational system.

In elucidating this weakness of Pakistan’s educated elite, Professor Waseem compares the typical Pakistani school graduate with one in the West. He asserts that in the West a school graduate is introduced to the origin and history of major ideas and is equipped with the conceptual tools to perceive and understand the dynamics of the real world. The social sciences are a part of the educational curriculum even at a preliminary level. Such is not the case in Pakistan where a school graduate is not equipped with a strong foundation in the uninhibited exploration of ideas. The canvas of education is limited and insular, a weakness that is exacerbated by textbooks that are not rich enough to familiarize students with a rapidly evolving world. Nor do they convey sufficient knowledge of ancient civilizations or even of the contemporary world. The result is a myopic worldview.

This observation is quite plausible but we may question whether it is just the content of the textbooks that is source of our problems. If we replace these books with those used in the developed world, would be induce the required change in the thinking of our people? It seems unlikely because of the inadequate training of teachers and their adherence to outdated pedagogical methods.

In Pakistan, students are discouraged from asking questions in class. They cannot even think of disagreeing with their teachers who are considered as being in positions of supreme authority, a relationship that discourages critical thinking. Teachers in turn are risk-averse and prefer not to stray from the conservative norms of religion, race and gender. They are either incapable of, or deliberately stay away from, conveying a more universal humanism depriving the students from developing a tolerance of differences in attitudes and values.

Another important factor contributing to the narrow-mindedness of the educated elite is the elimination of the social sciences from professional training at advanced levels of education. This is particularly the case in engineering, medical and military training. The curriculum is confined to technical subjects leaving out the more open-ended subjects that need to be a part of  intellectual growth. This one-dimensional education is resulting in the growing fundamentalism and increasing intolerance of our educated youth.

Recent research suggests that a disproportionate percentage of students involved in violent activities have a background in science, engineering or medicine. A study conducted in the sociology department of the University of Oxford (‘Engineers of Jihad,’ 2007) confirms this hypothesis that students of the above-mentioned subjects are over-represented in violent Islamist movements. The plausible explanation given for this phenomenon is that the mindset of people with this educational background inclines them to take extreme positions on matters that may have multiple answers or causes. The study reinforces the importance of the social sciences to mould individuals who can see things in grey instead of in black and white.

Despite the above, there are some other questions that need to be raised in order to address the issues raised by Professor Waseem. We need to be sure that our elite is truly ignorant of the crucial issues as presumed by him. Could it be possible that the  ignorance is a mere pretence? Is our political elite really interested in building an open intellectual environment in our society or does the status quo better serve its parochial interests? These questions direct us to a larger debate that is probably more significant in unravelling the sociopolitical dynamic of our society.

Sara Fatima graduated from LUMS with a major in Politics and Economics. For a related article, see Education: Humanities and Science

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Pakistanization of India?

December 7, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

India lags Pakistan in religious extremism but it seems both are headed for the same destination although by varying paths and with possibly different outcomes.

Much attention has been drawn to the rising injection of religion into politics in India spurring a number of debates in the media. Is India being Pakistanized? Is Modi India’s Zia? What accounts for the phenomenon? Where will it end? These are some of the frequently heard questions.

The dynamics of the phenomenon in the two countries appear similar but are actually different although there is an invisible underlying similarity that propels them in the same direction. A bedrock of religious prejudice exists in both countries available to be mined. In Pakistan, it has entered politics via concession and coercion while in India the drivers are manipulation and stealth. The paths in the two countries along which the phenomenon is evolving also present different constraints that shape its trajectory and growth. This premise bears some elaboration.

The Islamization we see in Pakistan today began not with Zia but with Bhutto. To extract himself from a self-created political crisis towards the end of his reign in 1977, Bhutto made some cynical concessions aimed at diffusing his opposition – the Friday holiday, prohibition on consumption of alcohol, declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims, etc. Had he survived, he might have contained the fall-out, but he didn’t.

Bhutto was replaced by Zia, the military dictator, who found riding this wave a ready means of legitimizing his rule. His equally cynical moves were not Islamization via grudging concession but through proactive coercion. Zia more or less mandated a whole host of measures – the covering of heads by female TV anchors, the use of Allah Hafiz by air hostesses and radio announcers, mandatory Friday prayers for bureaucrats, adding Islamic studies to the school and college curricula, testing religious knowledge in public service examinations, public flogging for criminals, stoning for adultery, etc., etc. Adding momentum to all this was the coincidence of Zia’s accession in 1979 with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution in Iran. These quite accidental events greatly reinforced the primacy of religion in politics.

India, on the other hand, has had no Bhutto or Zia; nor was Indian society impacted in the same way by the Russian invasion or the Iranian revolution. The primary push to inject religion into politics continues to be India’s electoral particularity, the presence of a fairly significant religious minority tagged with much historical baggage, a situation very different from that of Pakistan. The negatives of this distribution are exacerbated by the choice of the first-past-the-post modality to elect political representatives which creates incentives to divide and splinter coalitions, something to which fanning religious antagonisms readily lends itself in the Indian political landscape. While, there have been some secondary examples of concession and coercion in India – the Shah Bano case being an example of the first; banning the consumption of beef and attempting to alter history books of the second – the primary driver of religious extremism remains manipulation in the pursuit of political power.

Such manipulation reveals itself during the course of most elections in India. It was quite obvious earlier with the issue of the Babri mosque and the BJP electoral strategy in Gujarat. If it was not equally clear in the last national elections, particularly in UP and Bihar, the recently concluded state elections in Bihar removed any doubts. As the election progressed and the electoral outcome appeared shifting away from the BJP, its narrative moved in parallel from the high talk of development for all to rank communalism with the Prime Minister himself party to barely coded divisive messages about the relative rankings of the various communities included in the all.

This brings us to Narendra Modi and the element of stealth. It seems quite clear that while Modi prefers to occupy the high ground on religious tolerance, he has sanctioned a regime in which lower level functionaries, including minsters, can freely exploit or exacerbate religious differences for political or ideological ends. This is the current stealth mode of injecting religion into politics and society in India.

Where India and Pakistan are similar is that they continue to retain huge reservoirs of people for whom religion remains a very salient dimension of identity. This can remain subservient to other dimensions for prolonged periods but is among the ones that can be provoked most readily and with the greatest of ease.

Where India and Pakistan have been different is that while Pakistan has been proactively stoking religious prejudices and invoking religious nationalism for political purposes, India has been, by and large, resisting the temptations. That is till we get to Narendra Modi and the BJPs latest mandate with a dominant majority in parliament. Hence the recent spike in incidents of religious intolerance in India.

These differences between the two countries stem from the fact that while Pakistan is an authoritarian state with virtually no effective checks and balances, India is a democratic polity with a fair amount of space for dissent. Coercion can work in Pakistan while stealth is called for in India.

And this is what lends, contrary to Pakistan, considerable uncertainty regarding the likely outcome in India. The democratic space has engendered a much stronger civil society compared to Pakistan where protest under military dictatorships is far too risky and even under nominally democratic dispensations civil rights of citizens remain in abeyance. The emergence of the kind of protest by intellectuals, artists, and celebrities seen in India, of which the outpouring of awards returned was one example, is impossible to imagine in Pakistan. Even the return of one award would be a surprise; the possibility of a coordinated movement is inconceivable. How Indian civil society faces up to rising extremism and where things stand by the time the next elections come around would determine whether the recent spate of events would ebb or lead to a flood.

The lava of religious prejudice lies very close to the surface in both countries and the future rests very much on how it is managed by the interaction of political leadership and elements of civil society. Pakistani leadership lulled the population into thinking it was pursuing a low-cost strategy that was safely oriented outwards with religious nationalism targeted towards India and religious grievances towards the West. The blow-back of this short-sightedness has finally engulfed the country. Indian leadership, on the other hand, is engaged in a very high-risk strategy of fanning extremism in its domestic space, the risk heightened by the fact that its instrumentality is now tinged with elements of genuine belief in the merits of Hinduization.

In Pakistan, the battle is lost, at least for the near future. In India, the outcome remains to be determined with a lot resting on the strength of the resistance in the next few years.

Related Reading:

Electoral Choices
Pakistan-India Relations
India’s Pakistan Policy?
What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

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The Intolerant Indian: A Review

March 25, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The title of Gautam Adhikari’s new book, The Intolerant Indian, is intended to be provocative and it might indeed provoke those who go just by titles. Anyone reading the book though is more likely to be puzzled.

The subject is important no doubt – the extent of conflict fueled by the inability to agree is increasing – and so the intent to provoke a debate is laudable. But the manner in which the debate is framed is likely to generate more heat than light thereby threatening to inflame the very intolerance it aims to subdue. (more…)

LUMS and Learning: Reflections on a Discussion

October 28, 2010

The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is an institution of learning so it is entirely appropriate to try and learn from the discussion that has ensued following publication of the observations of an outsider (Professor Howard Schweber from the University of Wisconsin at Madison) who taught political theory at LUMS this past summer.

The discussion (accessible on this blog following Professor Schweber’s article, What are Pakistani College Students All About?) is largely defensive in character and critical of the author who is labeled, among other things, as ethnocentric and arrogant and accused of generalizing from a very small sample. The tenor of the response itself provides an entry into some aspects of the learning process that I wish to elaborate in this post. (more…)

The South Asian Idea

December 9, 2007

Objective: Understand, Explain, Predict & Connect South Asia

Audience:  College Students in South Asia

Method:     Conversations on Topics of Interest

Style:         Learning through Questioning

Themes: Development, Governance, Modernity, Religion, Education


The South Asian Idea is an interactive learning resource for self-motivated college students who wish to improve their understanding of the world we live in. It is also a resource for social science or liberal arts college teachers who are looking for additional teaching material.

The premise of The South Asian Idea is that critical thinking is vital for the full development of the human intellect. Critical thinking is learnt in schools and colleges through exposure to the social sciences and the liberal arts where questions do not have a single correct answer. Rather, there are often many plausible answers none of which are entirely right or wrong. However, some answers are more robust than others and arriving at them requires open-minded debate, tolerance for divergent perspectives, and the art of persuasive argumentation.

Unfortunately, in the competitive market for jobs characterizing the information age, students are ignoring the social sciences and the liberal arts considering them a waste of time. At the same time, the spirit of open inquiry has been dampened in educational institutions. Students in South Asia also advance at a relatively early age into professional colleges where there are few rigorous non-technical core course requirements.

As a result, critical thinking and open-mindedness have suffered steep erosion in South Asia. This has been a major contributing factor to the rise of social and religious intolerance in the region. This intolerance is the cancer that has the potential to destroy our society.

The South Asian Idea has been designed to address this issue. It is impossible to reverse the decline in the vast majority of educational institutions using traditional approaches. A web-based, interactive medium has the potential of very wide reach. The use of well-researched but student-friendly contextual material facilitates the inquiry-based learning process through moderated conversations across national borders.

The South Asian Idea is still an experiment  seeking the right mix of content, format, and complexity. The next steps involve transferring the contents to local language websites, identifying a set of teachers in South Asia as partners, equipping them to fully realize the benefits of the technology, and facilitating their interaction to learn from each other.

We would welcome your participation and guidance in this initiative. Your comments would be welcome at

Note: The South Asian Idea is a resource for learning, not a source of expert opinion. The posts on the blog are intended as starting points for classroom discussions and the position at the end of the discussion could be completely at odds with the starting point. Thus the blog simulates a learning process and does not offer a final product. The reader is invited to join the process to help improve our understanding of important contemporary issues.