Fayes T Kantawala on the link between crushing dissent and producing subpar leaders for policy-making
It’s perversely comforting to know that in the middle of a global pandemic, the largest financial crash in history and a worldwide cultural tipping point, Pakistan still thinks thinkers are its biggest problem.
Professor Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy taught physics at Forman Christian College (FCC) in Lahore until recently, when he was informed that his contract wouldn’t be renewed. The FCC also fired Dr Ammar Ali, who says he was given the choice to either “cease all public activity” or resign. The choice, such as it is, is a clumsy euphemism for something that is clear as glass for anyone who has navigated the Pakistani education system: don’t be political lest the political notice you.
This is not new. Dr Jan, by all accounts a charismatic and qualified teacher, had previously been let go from both Punjab University and Government College for bringing a “security threat” but neither institution elaborated. This is, again, code that he was saying things the establishment doesn’t want him to say and since they control public institutions (and most private ones if we’re honest), they had the power to silence him. The threat against academics, or indeed against anyone who is perceived to even mention the power structure of the status quo in Pakistan, is real and dangerous. But not new.
Successive governments and military dictators have long seen student politics as a destabilizing agent to their power in Pakistan. I’ve often suspected most generals see free-thinking educated civilians much like the world sees COVID infections. The country started dismantling of student groups in the late sixties and seventies, which set the stage for a mostly unchallenged descent into the stinking pit we find ourselves flailing in now.
Dr Hoodbhoy’s book, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, lays out in exacting detail how dangerous it is when religious dogma is used as a stand-in for science in places of higher learning. Most of that damage was infected during the awful Ziaul Haq years. Prof Hoodbhoy writes about a depressing conference on “scientific miracles” held in Pakistan circa 1987, in which Muslim scientists were encouraged to use scientific discovery to prove religious miracles. As an incentive, they were funded to the tune of Rs6,600,000 (half provided – you guessed it – by Saudi Arabia). One scientist memorably proposed that rather than wasting time on power plants or dams, we could capture and harness jinns to solve the country’s energy problems since they were made of fire.
The choice, such as it is, is a clumsy euphemism for something that is clear as glass for anyone who has navigated the Pakistani education system: don’t be political lest the political notice you
It’s funny to read about these men and their delusions only until the point you realize that they are the people in charge of approaches to educational policy that affect generations. It is also wise to remember how we were treating our Nobel laureate physicist during those same years.
Hoodbhoy’s battle in his book – with a foreword by Dr Abdus Salam – was to establish why the mistreatment of scientific ideas in Muslim societies is a bad thing. He lays out the history of suspicion of Muslim scientists in history by illiterate crowds unwilling – and for the most part unable – to distinguish newness from heresy. Even a cursory read is enough to disabuse you of the fiction that the Muslims were at one time a unified force of scientific discovery without opposition. In truth, every religion has similar aggression to scientific exploration because religion and science are essentially both trying to explain the world around us. Still, only one of them claims to have all the answers and kills you if you disagree.
As someone who grew up in an educational system shaped by Zia, I assure you it’s a battle already lost. The time to fight to keep bronze age myths out of our science departments was in decades ago. I realized that when my biology teacher made sure to lock the classroom door before beginning the chapter on evolution in 2001.
There is a long, long list of credible, intelligent, generous teachers who have been hounded out of universities (and schools) because they threatened the usual sub-par bureaucratic minds who infested most of the staff rooms. (Muhammad Hanif the author was fired from Habib University, no doubt for the same reasons Urdu versions of his book were banned but not English ones). There are also dozens of tiny intellectuals embedded in these institutions who routinely weapons sectarian divisions to bolster their own little trajectory.
Pakistan’s educational system is broken, corrupt and is designed to reward the criminally manipulative over the qualified every single time, particularly if they are loyal to the status quo.
You do not have to have a physics degree to see a direct causal relationship between lionizing people who believe in fiery interdimensional beings as a worthy study instead of, say, renewable energy, and our depressing inability to be able to model predictions (let alone manage) threats like Coronavirus or climate change.
If you fund people who believe in fairies as a pattern to design your planes then don’t be surprised if they don’t fly. So when our death rates rise and we are looking around for someone to blame, I’d like to draw your attention to our Minster of Climate Change, Zartaj Gul Wazir, who thinks that COVID-19 is so-called because there are 19 ways it affects a country. It should surprise no one that our Minister for Climate Change has never studied science unless they’ve begun including String Theory at the national art school. Then again, our Prime Minister referred to Osama Bin Laden as Shaheed (martyred) in Parliament, the clearest sign yet he’s following the wrong syllabus. This essay was first published in The Friday Times, Lahore.