Foreign Policy Blogs

Lessons From a Talk on Religious Education and Pluralism in Pakistan at the Wilson Center

I recently had the pleasure of attending an excellent talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. on the way religious education structures pluralism in Pakistan.  Matthew Nelson, a Lecturer at SOAS, University of London and a Fellow at the Wilson Center, offered a deeply interesting discussion on ways to think about religious “madrasa” education in Pakistan. His research and the questions they raise should serve as a study syllabus for anyone  interested in the development of pluralism in Pakistan. (Please find an executive summary of the talk here.)

Nelson’s work suggests what everyone in Pakistan–the Muslim world, entire perhaps– already knows: madrasa or Islamic education is ubiquitous and popular in Pakistan.  Nelson argues that how one is educated impacts how one thinks about politics and society.  Hence, that nearly every child in Pakistan receives some mix of public or private and religious education is likely to structure the content of public values in Pakistan.  So it is very important that Pakistan watchers get right how the education system is structured in Pakistan. Mechanically holding opinions that are popularly spun and then driving through policy based on those opinions will not do.

Interestingly, Nelson’s research does not confirm widely held beliefs about the so-perceived link between madrasa education and terrorism. Being so overwhelmingly popular, religious education in Pakistan is encountered in terms little different than mother’s milk and as such can’t be source of trouble for democrats in Pakistan and the West alike.  Consider: if religious education were a real and troubling source of intolerance the widely popular consumption of that knowledge would have triggered far more numerous terrorist events than have been reported over the last few years.  This, even though there are certainly some madrasas that are churning mills of intolerant values and practices.

Nelson’s research suggests that the trouble with rampant intolerance and group specific exclusion in Pakistan, against say, the Ahmedis and Christians, lies in public education in Pakistan, structured as it has been to defend Pakistan against some phantom enemy against which it seems to lose in real time, in the real world.  Thanks to this decades long enmity the state education system has unified all Muslims and their differences to combat, in principle, the threat from the East, India. Given the rather intolerant group oriented premises and principles of inclusion and exclusion, little wonder then that pluralism of value hasn’t taken hold in Pakistan.

Hence, policy makers interested in some positive solution to germinate tolerance and pluralism would do well to look into public school education and middling private schools.  In particular they’d do well to focus attention on text books, which have preached a story of political demonization against all non-Muslims, while spinning a fairy tale about majoritarian Islamic unity in Pakistan.  For now, one might well advise some policy makers, leave aside the laser-directed attention on madrasas. Concentrate instead on pushing through and publishing a more tolerant and all-inclusive curriculum in Pakistan’s schools.



Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link:

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