When universities tackle taboos in Pakistan

Students' solidarity trip to Ahmadi headquarters in Pakistan sparks outcry
When universities tackle taboos in Pakistan

An official from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (left) and a soldier collect information from an Ahmadi sect resident during a census in Rabwah of Chiniot District in Punjab, Pakistan, in this March 27, 2017 file photo. The country's religious minorities are often economically marginalised, attacked by militant groups, and frequently hit by charges of blasphemy. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)

"Seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China," states a narrative often attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

While scholars may not agree on the authenticity of this prophetic saying (hadith), the message to acquire knowledge is consistent with the teachings of the Holy Prophet of Islam.

However, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) found itself in hot water after a group of students from the most prestigious universities in the country recently paid an exposure visit to Rabwah, the Ahmadi headquarters in Pakistan.

Both media and mullahs were furious at the solidarity trip.

"Qadianiat [the Ahmadi faith] has pierced its talons in LUMS," stated the headline of an Urdu newspaper.

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Religious groups and anti-blasphemy parties openly threatened the group in public gatherings. Many social media users blamed Professor Taimur Rehman for endangering the lives of 25 youngsters.

Upon repeated requests from friends and colleagues, the professor of political science had to remove the critical media coverage and video of the tour from his Facebook page.

"Folks, I neither need nor want your pity. I can take the stress of such hate campaigns. Nor do I need reminders to be careful. I know just how many progressives have been targeted. I've attended their funerals. I've paid tribute to them with my songs," he posted.

"One cannot but help remark that the space available to us is nothing but a gilded cage. And while we may find peace even within a dungeon, such a peace contradicts the very nature and essence of being human."

It was disheartening to see an academic — actually a PhD holder from London's School of Oriental and African Studies — taking fire for doing his actual job as a tutor — reasoning, expounding on openness, and transforming society.

In 2007, Rehman founded the music group "Laal" (red) to promote the ideals of progressive and Sufi poets.

And while I have no doubt about his resolve for peace and unity, I don't think he will ever organize another youth trip to the place that can't be mentioned.

 

The late bishop

I had the chance to visit LUMS in mid-October to attend the inaugural Bishop John Joseph Memorial Speaker Series on Human Rights.

The hall was completely silent during the screening of a documentary on the late bishop, who fatally shot himself in 1998 in front of a court building after a Christian was sentenced to death for allegedly blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.

Addressing the law students, the Muslim professor reflected on the importance of remembering the bishop "who not only sacrificed for Christians, but for everyone else to go in deep soul searching for everything wrong around us."

That was the most befitting tribute from the Muslim community I had heard on the 20th anniversary of the bishop's death.

Again I don't think another Pakistani bishop will repeat such a history. Not all clergy agree on the literal translation of John 15:13 as "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."

During a discussion on the life and struggles of the most popular bishop of Pakistan, Peter Jacob, director of the Center for Social Justice, especially urged the law students to study the case of the recently released Asia Bibi.

Christians all over the country had high hopes she would be released after Pakistan's Supreme Court reserved its verdict in the final appeal by the Catholic mother to escape capital punishment in a blasphemy case that began with a dispute with field workers a decade ago.

"Christians accused of blasphemy are more vulnerable to atrocities because they do not get any relief at the inquiry stage, as opposed to Muslims. There are more chances for them to be killed," said Jacob.  

Ahmadis, who have been declared non-Muslims under Pakistani law, suffer the same fate. Some 260 were killed last year, and another 379 were assaulted for their faith.

Ahmadis rank first among those who are laying low until the storm blows over.

Meanwhile, the other side continues spilling blood and using religion to gain power.

For the next three months, LUMS will hold three more discussions on Bishop Joseph and persecuted religious communities.

This is a rare series, and is unheard of in government universities where Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT) students relentlessly purse moral policing.

On Oct. 25, five Punjab University (PU) students associated with IJT were suspended for beating up a man who was sitting with his wife on campus.

This is not the first time they have displayed this fascist attitude. Rahman claims the purpose of this "state sponsored group" is to keep the students away from really challenging politics.

LUMS needs all the support it can get from civil society, church groups and liberal factions. Mere social media posts cannot stop mullahs from influencing their agenda on the institute. Pity alone will not help progressive professors like Rehman. No good can come from a society whose intellectuals have stitched lips.

Academic inquiry and discussion on taboos topics has endangered many faculty members in the past.

In January this year, a college principal was shot dead by a Grade 12 student who had accused him of blasphemy in Pakistan's northwest region.

Moreover, six years have passed since Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer of English in Bahauddin Zakariya University of Multan, was sent to jail for alleged blasphemy. Not a single hearing has taken place in the case.

What credible educational institutes like LUMS really need is real solidarity with the cause for which they are struggling. Equal rights, human dignity, and interfaith harmony.

Real change requires a serious movement and an organized struggle. The Progressive Student Collective, a joint venture of young people from 10 colleges and universities, is only limited to Lahore in Punjab province.

Still I laud these brave students for highlighting the problems with blasphemy-related killings in campuses, street theatres, and protests.

We need more of these groups around the country. Cramming lessons alone cannot incorporate life's values and habits. In the era of cyber brainwashing and digital propaganda, our youth desperately needs good teachers who can ask good questions and revive the forgotten chapters of love and harmony.

In the words of Pope Francis, "no teacher is ever alone, his or her work is shared with other colleagues and with all the [academic] community to which they belong."

Right now, we have left our teachers on their own.

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.

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