Teaching religion

The new National Education Policy (NEP) 2009 brought many vital questions into focus. While the provincial and federal Ministries for Education and Text Book Boards are struggling to set textbooks, a passionate discussion started in the media. Empowered under the 18th Amendment, the provincial governments are trying to come to terms with the NEP-prepared and approved policy prior to this amendment that kept a control over the curriculum with the Curriculum Wing of the Federal Ministry of Education.

Five national education policies, one plan (in the 50s), half a dozen official policy reviews and a number of educational conferences that we have had so far since 1947 failed to obtain the benchmarks or policy goals set forth vis-à-vis mass literacy and education standards. There is a widely held view that the second education policy in 1972 brought a drastic and adverse change in the quality and content of the syllabus. This policy pontificated by Mr Hafeez Pirzada, the then education minister, was a reversal of the ideals set by the earlier education commission headed by Mr S M Sharif, which had emphasised teaching ethics to all students rather than making religion part of public education.Islamic studies became a compulsory subject in 1976 at school level. From the outset, it also had to have two separate versions of Islamiat for Sunni and Shia students. After General Zia’s coup the curriculum was gradually stuffed with so much religious material that school education began to match the madrassas. To bring Pakistan closer to theocracy he amended Article 31 of the constitution, making Islamic Studies mandatory at educational institutions at all levels. Additionally, Surahs were used to teach Naazrah (reading of Arabic).

For non-Muslim students, this policy disregarded Article 22 of the constitution, which prohibited teaching religion other than one’s own. As an alibi, the subject of ethics was introduced for non-Muslim students ignoring the difficulties linked to this decision. First, it is not a choice for non-Muslim students because it would isolate them and discrimination is guaranteed. Thus a large majority of non-Muslim students — approximately one million in 2010 — are obliged to take Islamic studies for grades. Second, the textbooks for ethics promoted an Islamic viewpoint. There were other difficulties, amongst them unavailability of teachers and textbooks, because publishers were not ready to risk their investment. By and large, the subject of ethics was not an option for non-Muslim students but the Federal Education Ministry and its curriculum wings failed to see these difficulties faced by non-Muslim students. Moreover, teaching Islamic Studies makes scripture a mandatory part of the school bag of the students, which has potential risk of abuse of blasphemy laws in schools in the given environment of Pakistan. In fact, a few incidents have already taken place where non-Muslim students faced injustices after such allegations.

The new NEP does not change anything but enhances the scope of teaching religion — Para 85-88, pages 31-32 — by providing Islamic Studies as an elective subject for higher classes rather than as a compulsory one. The NEP also provides for setting up a Madrassa Education Authority under the Interior Ministry. The Madrassa Education Authority is mandated to provide: funds for education and socio-economic welfare of students, infrastructure and equipment for improvement of existing facilities, training to enhance skills of teachers, support in vocational training to equip students to generate income, advice and assistance in streamlining policies, revise objectives and syllabi to give graduates a competitive edge in the job market, etc. The rationale, the achievability and the modus operandi aside — which are questionable anyhow — the lofty task of curriculum reform in madrassas has been explained in just one paragraph — para 13 on page 34 — of the document. Arabic was also to be a compulsory part of the curriculum in the original scheme. The NEP, however, did not suggest any check on hate speech, distortions and religious discrimination in the education scheme and curriculum.

We as a nation need to do serious introspection on what impact education policies have made on Pakistani society and what the new NEP is likely to bring to us, using the experience at hand. The Standing Committee on Education in the National Assembly is championing the accountability of parliamentarians holding fake degrees, whereas the damage goes far beyond. We might have to face a trial for giving our children a fake education that rather stuffs young minds with a ghetto worldview.The indicators vis-à-vis education pose serious questions about our priorities as a nation. Whether we want our generations to be educated in a manner to be able to live as law-abiding, responsible citizens empowered with skill and knowledge or we would like them to be arrogant, split-minded religious bigots. Religion has not lost significance in societies where moral teaching and ethics are part of the curriculum, while teaching religion is left to families and institutions specialising in this area.

The substance of education should be a concern of all stakeholders. Pakistan needs to move from religion-centred education to values and civic education, from non-education to education, from literocracy or fake education to quality education. A quality education would be hard to achieve and growing intolerance, especially that based on religion and sect, would be hard to tackle without a bold and clearheaded intervention in improving the curriculum for schools, colleges and universities.If the governments — provincial and federal — do not have the means and strength to keep religion apart from education, an option lies in accommodating religious diversity. Till we mature politically to make better decisions, religion should be taught in the subject of Islamic Studies and not every possible subject. Moreover, students belonging to other faiths — Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, etc — should be allowed to learn their own religions. This might help the school environment by making a practical example of diverse traditions coexisting at least in the school atmosphere and the education policy and curriculums will acknowledge the existence of multi-religious traditions in Pakistan – Dailytimes