Tolerance of diversity

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BY: Kamila Hyat

We have faced several periods in the past when thoughts and ideas were restricted. But the problem has persisted. The ban reportedly placed on an O Levels textbook for Pakistan Studies, being used since nearly two decades in many schools, is disturbing. The objectionable content is irrelevant. The problem is that an opinion, an idea, has been snatched away from young people, leaving them with less information on which to form their own opinions and ideas.

This kind of action in any society is dangerous. It inevitably leads to closed mindsets simply because there is no encouragement to investigate, inquire, research or look into the information delivered. It is also true that our education system too often encourages this information to be accepted at face value, without calling for any effort to be put in to exploring different dimensions or angles of that information. In almost every case, there will be several perspectives from which one historical event or incident can be looked at. Ideally, each of these perspectives needs to be placed before students, or at least an opportunity should be provided to them to explore different ideas on their own.

Failure to do so produces stereotyped notions. Young women attending some institutions of higher learning are taught how best to look after their husbands and families. The job of a housewife is, of course, respectable, and should not be put down in any way, but promoting notions that one partner is superior to the other and needs to be ‘served’ is damaging. In a patriarchal society like ours, we need to instil greater confidence in young women, beginning with when they are small girls, and encourage them to own themselves and their lives. This will be difficult, but traditions have been broken. The content of textbooks being taught in Punjab has recently improved quite significantly. This process must continue to develop curiosity, which is central to the future of our country.

Even on campuses of higher learning, we appear to have attempted to stifle curiosity. Teachers who have promoted views which do not fully conform with the most entrenched norms have been penalised, by either being dismissed from service or being prevented from saying what they believe is right. More than one individual has suffered from such persecution. Of course, the views that some people put forward disturb others, since we live in a set up where there is little acceptance of differing approaches and points of views. But the main purpose of education, notably at the college and university levels, must be to develop in students the capacity to tolerate all kinds of opinions, analyse them and then formulate an individual opinion. Every student in the country should be capable of doing this. It is quite obvious that many have the ability to go far beyond the limits set for them by curriculums and textbooks. The blockages which prevent them from doing so are quite literally holding back development and growth of thought in our country.

There are more and more topics on which discussion has almost become impossible. These, for example, include the country’s blasphemy laws – a topic that generates very strong feelings in almost any setting. All views deserve to be heard, and it is legitimate to express them – except of course when they demand that a crime be committed against another human being. But it is important to remember that a true discourse can only occur when a variety of ideas is allowed to flow freely within a gathering or at another forum. When this does not happen, we are left with men such as Khadim Rizvi, who recently demanded that members of the Ahmadi community be either forced to convert or beheaded. This does not appear to be a sensible notion. Yet, while other social media content has been deleted or blocked, speeches by Rizvi and others like him continue to be accessible to millions.

The system is in urgent need of correction. Rather than banning more books, or inserting in children’s books material that is inaccurate and intended to provide only one narrative of historical events, we need to create a far wider and deeper understanding of issues. This has become difficult in an environment of increased intolerance, where parents of even elite private schools’ students have been known to bar their children from attending talks intended to raise awareness about drugs, or object to the teaching of other content such as comparative religion. It is this closed-mindedness that encourages hatred and leads to barbaric actions. One such act is the killing of Sikh human rights activist Charanjeet Singh in Peshawar, a few days ago. Ironically, he was targeted soon after he had hosted an iftar gathering for Muslims as part of his mission to build religious harmony; a full investigation of the case is ongoing.

There was a time in our country when such events were commonplace, with Hindus joining Muslims in celebrating Eid, Muslims doing the same on Hindu festivals. Christmas was celebrated at the governors’ houses in the spirit of communal unity and ‘sabeels’ were set up by Sunnis for Shias during Ashura processions. It is now almost impossible to imagine such a time.

Hatred is most dangerous when it is ingrained in the minds of children at an early age and is allowed to grow. If we wish to turn our children into thinking, active citizens committed to their country and to the rights of all people within it, students need to be encouraged to read a great variety of material and generate their own box of ideas at every age. This box should be large and contain many different thoughts, some possibly placed higher within the space than others, depending on personal interests and characteristics. However, every person should remember that other people too carry a box, the contents of which need to be respected even if they are not in every case agreed with. No one in our country should be killed because of what they believe in, and no building should be torn down because it belongs to a particular community. It is sad that there has been so little protest over the destruction of an Ahmadi place of worship in Sialkot.

Ideas, thoughts and discussion cannot reign supreme in a society where there is censorship and a deliberate policy of preventing people from voicing their thoughts. Such actions have taken place at various points in our history. They have in so many ways held us back as a nation. The climate needs to be altered, and the roads opened up, so that blockades placed on thinking can be removed. We need to raise the possibility for many different streams of thought to exist in our society, provided that none of these streams is aimed to hurt another individual or suppress anyone’s rights. This is the kind of environment we should be aiming to create, on our campuses and everywhere else in the country.

Sadly, we have only moved further away from this goal. Finding the way back will be a harder task as each year passes, but we must remember that it is not an impossible one. If we can convince every individual and every group to be tolerant, we will have achieved a great victory.

Courtesy The News

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