By Faisal Bari
September 27, 2013
IN the land where thousands of Sufis are buried and thousands are alive, where scores of Sufi orders thrive, where the likes of Buddha, Nanak and Ram have walked, where millions of lovers of wisdom have lived and died, the government of a province says we cannot teach comparative religion to our children in schools. And this at a time when we are under siege from those for whom tolerance is anathema.
We live in multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious societies. We have overlapping identities. How can we allow privilege to one identity and, more importantly, how can we limit our children from knowing how others live and why they live the way they do?
Comparative religion is not about comparing religions to decide which is better. That would indeed be a ridiculous course and no school would be daft enough to do something like that.
Comparative religion is about the history of religions and people, the beliefs of people, their answers to some of the biggest questions humans face and how their answers help them make sense of the world around them. How can our children not be allowed to know this?
There are parents, clearly, who feel that knowing about other religions and their beliefs might make their children lose their own beliefs. Is that a realistic fear? Especially when our children are raised in an environment steeped in their own religion and the rituals that go with it. Should our children, when they are mature enough — and Grade 7 and above is surely that — not know about the beliefs of people in the same society?
The quality of our journalism, especially television journalism, is a good reflection of where we are and the direction in which we are headed. After the blast outside the church in Peshawar one person on TV said something to the effect that ‘Safai karney walon ka safaya ho gaya (the cleaners have been swept away themselves). Television talk shows in Pakistan are reflections of poorly done Jerry Springer shows and Mubashir Lucman is one of the worst offenders.
Clearly the state is scared. It is willing to talk to people who are killing our compatriots every day, but they want to ban the teaching of comparative religion. One need not say more about their knee-jerk reaction.
But how far will this banning exercise go? Should we stop teaching philosophy because a lot of Western philosophy tackles some of the basic tenets of religions and takes a lot of concepts from Christianity? Will the Greeks make sense to us if there is no understanding of their mythology? Reading the Greeks was not a problem for Imam Ghazali and Ibn-i-Rush’d, why should it be an issue for us? Or is it living faiths we have a problem with?
Can anyone understand Bishop Berkeley’s Treatise on Principles of Human Knowledge without understanding the notion of God that he worked with? Even the discussion of miracles in David Hume requires some understanding of the Christian doctrine. Should we stop teaching literature for the same reason? Are writings of non-Muslims kosher? Is Shakespeare OK?
What about the teaching of history? How will we make it halal or kosher? How do you teach history without talking of the beliefs of people and what they lived and died for? Can we talk of the advent of Islam without talking about some of the pagan practices that were prevalent in the Arabia of the time? Can the Muslim encounter in Spain or India be studied without the relevant facts about these countries, their indigenous populations and their religions and cultures?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Is this what we are protecting our children from? I am glad I got my education at a different time.
Right now the focus seems to be on one school. But the reported provincial order against the teaching of comparative religion seems to be a more general one. Will the school in question fight the order in court? They are a commercial organisation. They might not, even if they are convinced of the merits of their approach, be able to take on the government.
Will parents of the students who would like their children to know about other religions, belief systems and ways of being, be able to help? Will a group of parents go to court? If the provincial government continues to insist on the ban, will concerned citizens step forward?
The courts might be regarded as myopic or fearful, but it is incumbent on citizens to fight for their rights and every inch of turf has to be fought for. Otherwise, the scenario would be as Maurice Ogden sketched it in The Hangman:
“For who has served more faithfully
Than you with your coward’s hope?” said he,
“And where are the others that might have stood
Side by your side, in the common good?”
“Dead!” I whispered, and amiably
“Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me;
“First the alien then the Jew.
I did no more than you let me do.”
Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
None before stood so alone as I.
The Hangman then strapped me, with no voice there
to cry “Stay!” for me in the empty square.
Faisal Bari is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore