The fact that educated people, even university graduates (most recently the San Bernardino shooter), in our society can be turned into terrorists is a worrisome concern. More than that, however, a bigger and more pressing question of concern, one many people have been asking, is why we are getting more than our fair share of these people. Detecting radicalisation in people may be the more pressing, immediate need, but it is a short-term priority that should not trump the long-term need to identify the root-cause and enabling factors that produce the intolerance that leads to radicalisation.
Intolerance has become a norm in our society. There are plenty of examples from everyday life that are indicative of this sad fact. One example is the recent case of traders in Lahore who, first, posted discriminatory notices outside their shops barring entry of Ahmadis, and later protested against the Punjab government for taking down the notices. Intolerance is so abundant and permeates the everyday life to such an extent that many of us cannot even identify it as such.
Here I should clarify, that when I speak of intolerance I am not only referring to the intolerance of certain religious adherents, that is usually readily associated with the word, but equally of liberals. When I speak of intolerance I am referring to the unwillingness of people to accept others’ choices that do not lie within the limits of what one considers “right”.
Neither of these groups lives in their own bubbles, and is bound to come across people they disagree with every day. It is safe to say that such narrow-mindedness does not lead to happiness or psychological well being for any group. This intolerance is not a naturally acquired, beneficial, or advantageous trait. Then how and where did we evolve or acquire this intolerance from?
Let us indulge into a crude generalisation, and consider the upbringing of a child, and the external messages she receives. Broadly speaking, children receive messages from within their homes, most notably parents, siblings, grandparents, and other family members.
As an example, a widely used warning parents give their children to stop them from straying too far from the home is “Bahir mat jaana warna pathan utha kar le jayen ge” (Don’t go outside or a Pathan will kidnap you). This example shows the blanket labelling and discrimination against an ethnic group that many children are taught from their homes. It is not hard to see how such discriminatory messages will morph into intolerant opinions against those same ethnic groups, if they are not challenged or checked at some place along the way while growing up.
After a few years, the influences of schools and religious teachers are added to this mix. I will not recount or go into the details of analysing the public school curriculum for biases and messages of intolerance, because much has been said on that issue already. However, the bottom-line is that school curriculums favour homogeneity — one definition of what constitutes a patriot, one definition of what makes a person a “true” Muslim, and only one right way to see and interpret history. When there is only one right answer to every question, any deviation becomes “wrong,” particularly when it challenges fundamental beliefs. This leaves little to no room for questions or different ideas.
Questions and a plurality of ideas arise only when there is exposure to different viewpoints. Where other nations teach subjects like “Religion” and “World History” in schools, we teach “Islamiat” and “Pakistan Studies”. The study of English, Urdu, Arabic languages is restricted to simple lessons that fit into textbooks and doing well at school does not require any reading beyond them, not even a handful of significant books of literature.
Deep questions about textbooks lessons require students to reproduce specific answers dictated by teachers or provided in “answer keys,” leaving little room for independent thinking. Couple this with a culture that discourages questioning or challenging the teacher, is it then any wonder that we find ourselves faced with hordes of people that are incapable of original and rational thinking?
Recently a group of in-school and out-of-school children were shown a programme to examine their perceptions about social issues such as religious intolerance. In most cases children were able to understand the story of the programme but were unable to extend its lessons to their daily lives, irrespective of the background or type of schooling of the child. For example, after watching the programme on sectarian violence, while children did not agree with the treatment extended to the minority in that story and could rightly interpret their emotions on having to leave their homes behind, they were unable to extend lessons learned to differential treatment in their neighbourhoods based on religion, caste, or sect. In fact, children showed unwillingness of co-habitation and friendships among people of different groups, especially on the basis of religion.
Children filtered the message of the programme through their prior learning and way of thinking. While this is not unusual by itself, they showed a complete lack of capacity to revisit and re-evaluate their existing beliefs. There is a disconnect in the ability to use experiences to question existing beliefs and engage in rational introspection.
Should a person escape this educational abuse, there remain plenty of others in society ready to indoctrinate them in ways that lead to dark places. Amongst them, extreme religious preachers like Maulana Abdul Aziz and Farhat Hashmi and charismatic “leaders” like Zaid Hamid. While some of these may not be preaching violence in clear terms, for some of their sympathisers at least, theirs’ become gateway ideologies, first steps to more radical beliefs.
We have been sowing the seeds of these non-thinking minds for so long that multiple generations, parents and children, are now equally afflicted. Such is the status quo, and it suits many quarters in Pakistani society. An unquestioning and unchallenging citizenry suits the political/feudal class, bureaucrats, religious leaders as well as the military. How are we to break out of this cycle then?
How do people develop and train their ability to think critically and rationally? The answer may sound timid, but in my humble opinion it is through education that is broader than what we are offering currently, something that offers the same skill set that liberal education does. This type of education should form the foundation of a child’s learning before a narrower field of study or profession is chosen.
The Romans coined the term “liberal” education, where liberal in this context means “of or pertaining to free men” (Fareed Zakaria’s: In defense of a liberal education). A liberal arts education trains students to read, write and think clearly, and is fundamentally different from a technical or professional education.
Unlike a professional education, a liberal arts education does not prepare students for a specific job or industry. An oft repeated line explains, “A liberal arts education will prepare you not only for your first job but for your fourth and fifth job, as there is little reason to doubt that people entering the workforce today will be called upon to play many different roles over the course of their careers.” In our local context, perhaps the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is the only university that offers a liberal arts education in the true sense.
However, training in the liberal arts does not begin in college. By this time many people get their opinions by adopting those of others coupled with a tendency to not challenge or question. The fundamental groundwork that enables a person to embark on a liberal arts college programme is laid in primary, middle and high schools, by inculcating a habit of reading, the ability to write creatively, building coherent arguments and some basic appreciation for works of art and literature. In our case, public schools, and for most part private schools too, deprive students of (almost) all these skills and abilities that will eventually allow them to think critically; evaluating and building rational arguments; detecting biases; vetting sources etc.
Several studies over the last few years have shown the link between happiness and tolerance at the level of nations. There may of course be a number of other factors in play as well, but is it a coincidence that the nations consistently scoring highest on the Happiness Index of the Gallup World Poll are all countries home to cultures that respect rights to privacy and non-interference in other’s lives? People may want to ponder, what kind of life they want for their children. Do you want to bring out your children like yourselves, unhappy and rigid in their beliefs, unwilling and incapable of living in a diverse and pluralistic society, unthinking drones whose opinions are easy to influence and compounding the misery of others? I doubt any parent would say yes to this.
I want to leave you with a quote from the book Peripheral Visions: Learning along the way by Mary Catherine Bateson, an American writer and anthropologist: “Modern thinking about evolution has made it clear that survival is not a simple zero-sum game: the new inference is that unless we share the planet with other species we imperil our own survival.”