Some lessons learnt
By Farhana Kanwal and Zehra Zaidi
The Pakistan Center for Excellence (PACE) is a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative aimed at sensitizing young intellectuals and academics on ‘critical thinking’. Designed by the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), PACE grew out of the need to trigger critical thinking through a discourse that is anchored in globally acknowledged and practiced values. These values include acceptance of socio-political diversity, rule of law, equal citizenry, freedom of faith and expression well as the rights afforded within Pakistan’s Constitution (articles 8-28).
As many as 580 young university teachers and professors, drawn from 80 educational institutes, have gone through 29 training workshops. However, feedback from these monthly gatherings leads one to conclude that extremist narratives, increasing religiosity and countering both of them through a critical discourse remain a major challenge for Pakistan’s policy makers and citizens at large.
CRSS’ experience of working with such a wide array of young male and female teachers was a mixed bag; some were progressive in their ideas and approach, while others appeared less receptive or even reluctant to embrace notions on fundamental human rights that were being advocated during the workshops. Where some participants were amenable to changing their perceptions, others were not – as evidenced from the inter-active discussions with the resource persons. An assessment of the pre and post training questionnaires also helped in determining the extent of influence these workshops had on the participants.
Initially, most participants would agree that there were gaps in the ideals of inter-faith harmony and diversity and the actual practice. Soon after the dialogues, however, many participants reverted to their original (conservative) narratives on issues such as women rights or equal rights for religious minorities.
One surprising revelation was some participants even saying that Hindus, their fellow citizens, ought to leave the country if they were prone to forced conversions. They even believed that talking about equal status of Ahmadis as human beings went very much against their religious beliefs. On a positive note, there were participants who believed in a pluralistic society with equal respect for all.
When it came to gender diversity, there were other pressing issues. The female participants were usually hesitant and not allowed to travel alone due to cultural barriers. Some were also not allowed to stay at the hotels as it was considered against their cultural values. Secondly, some male participants thought that propagating gender equality meant asking for more women rights. Patriarchal mindset was evident among several male participants. Not only men, but women also believed that they needed a ‘man’s support’ to survive in the society.
However, there were female participants who were still enthusiastic to be a part of this program; as in a society like Pakistan, there were limited forums for females like PACE giving them a platform to make their voices heard. One of the major challenges faced during this training program was how some participants’ religious sensitivity came to fore, and how they expressed little or no tolerance towards difference of opinion.
Furthermore, the participants were introduced to interactive sessions with minorities at the latter’s places of worship. Initially, they appeared to be respectful towards their (religious minorities) religious beliefs, however, soon after leaving the dialogues, they reverted to their fixed pattern of thinking. The CRSS, however, appreciated from the beginning that the project would be a challenge, as most participants hailed from far flung areas of Pakistan. These participants came with a fixed set of preconceived notions nurtured in their minds over the course of their lives.
Hence, some of them were not ready to shun their prejudices and emotional attachments. For them, some issues were ‘no-go’ areas as ‘they challenged the foundations of their religious beliefs’. Therefore, for some, de-radicalization programs and campaigns were propagation of certain values that went against religion.
The project also included participants from remote areas who were struggling to accept and tolerate others over religious differences and opinions; and therefore, were not receptive to ‘change’. However, we, through PACE, tried to provide them with a platform to debate and discuss progressive ideas. During the project, some trainers were also criticized by several participants ‘for not being as religious as them’.
For such participants, everything started and ended with religion, simply because they related everything to it. If someone chose to disagree with them, they were quick in accusing them committing blasphemy. However, on a positive side, there were others who seemed to appreciate this opportunity that allowed them to share their opinion. These participants also believed in an equal society with respect for all, irrespective of their religion.
There is a preconceived notion that professors and lecturers are open and flexible in their thinking. However, there is a large proportion of these ‘influencers’ that refuses to promote diverse values and tolerance; hence as a result, the future generations suffer. These experiences and reflections suggest that if educated teachers – considered role models and opinion makers in every society – are less receptive to change and diversity, how can we, as a society, then blame those who rarely get an opportunity to seek formal education. This also suggests that Pakistan needs more projects like PACE in order to break barriers and contribute towards a more diverse and pluralistic society.
Although, Pakistan has suffered tremendously from religious extremism and radicalization, there is still hope that through collective efforts, we can bring about positive change in the society. Through such training workshops, the CRSS wishes to sensitize and shape the mindset of the coming generations by promoting the message of equality, diversity and tolerance.
About the authors:
Farhana Kanwal is a Project Coordinator at CRSS, where she works primarily on Pakistan Center of Excellence (PACE), a project countering violent extremism.
Zehra Zaidi is a Project Coordinator at CRSS, where she works primarily on Pakistan Center of Excellence (PACE), a project countering violent extremism.