The Azazel of ignorance - Hajrah Mumtaz - Monday, March 14, 2011

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READING all the news and views coming out of and about Pakistan, I am reminded of a 1998 film, Fallen.
The storyline concerns a malevolent fallen angel, Azazel, that ‘possesses’ people and causes them to do evil. Azazel could switch bodies through any sort of fleeting contact — a hand brushed against another, an accidental bump on the sidewalk.
The idea behind the conception of Azazel could be used as a metaphor for Pakistan, if the demon were to be viewed as a compendium of extremism, bigotry, intolerance and violence. Frighteningly, Pakistan’s Azazel doesn’t just switch from one body to another; it replicates itself, apparently endlessly. What started with a malevolence that was the hallmark of just a few criminals and terrorists seems over the years to have become a dominant societal characteristic. Everyday, the demon appears to infect more and more people, turning them into clones of itself and mockeries of humanity.
Evidence that the metaphorical demon is spreading its malice to greater or lesser extents can be found in rising levels of terrorism, in the increasing incidences of mob violence and lynching, in those who have not committed murder yet admire the work of Mumtaz Qadri, and in those who start their sentence with ‘but’ while a discussion is under way on the need to review laws that lend themselves to misuse.
What motivates the demon that stalks Pakistan? In terms of the Taliban and their cohorts, the answer is relatively simple in concept: power, and the desire to spread their influence as far as possible through any means possible, thus altering the basic nature of the state as it currently exists.
This was established by the manner in which matters played out in Afghanistan during the 1990s and more recently in Swat during the brief period when the Taliban held sway.
Why, however, does intolerance and extremism seem to infect increasing numbers of ‘ordinary’ people?
My use of Azazel is only a metaphor, obviously. Some part of the answer can be found in Aldous Huxley’s observation that “At least two-thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity, idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols.”
Much of this applies to Pakistan, where the “proselytizing zeal” is a characteristic of a society that is increasingly ignorant, even where not totally uneducated. Conventional wisdom says that education and enlightenment go a long way towards preventing extremism. Educated people are generally less desperate people.
Amongst Pakistan’s problems is the fact that we have idealism of various sorts and to various extremes, but no ideas — and consequently hardly any tools — to come up with a way to alter the current narrative. And this lack will only become increasingly dangerous in a country whose demographic is skewed heavily towards the young and that yet does nothing to save its collapsing education system.
According to a recently released study, we have seven million children out of primary school and another three million that will never enter a classroom. And when children make it to school, and later even college, studies have shown that the quality of ‘education’ imparted is abysmal.
Education is important not just because of the future employment prospects it provides. It is crucial for the generation of ideas and fostering the open-mindedness that is usually the characteristic of peaceful societies where it is more difficult for extremism or bigotry to find space. A society with relatively more access to education in its true sense, the real education that leads to creative thinking and enlightenment, is less prone to indulging in the sort of malice and stupidity to which Huxley referred.
To get back to the Azazel metaphor, the situation in Pakistan is such that the country keeps producing replicas where intolerance, in most cases fuelled by ignorance and lack of knowledge of the ‘other’, spreads like wildfire. The education system is complicit in this regard, where mischief-making syllabi instil divorced-from-reality notions of history, religion, world affairs or international relations.
A student who has gone through the full educational cycle, emerging at the other end with a BA degree, has the same notions of India, America, minorities or human rights as most of his compatriots, whether educated or not. His education makes him conform to Pakistan’s regressive thinking, and thus it spreads, leaving minds to be filled by extremist ideals and ideologies.
Education could save Pakistan even now. The task is difficult but, with sufficient political will, can be accomplished. The first step would lie in achieving literacy, and there are models available for that.
The Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire, who wrote the very influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed, set up in 1962 a project for adult literacy on an urgent basis — literacy was at that time a requirement for voting in Brazil’s presidential elections. Through his methods, 300 sugarcane workers learned to read and write in just 45 days. The 1964 military coup put an end to that project but the effort to educate Brazilians continued.
Today, Brazil’s literacy rate is estimated around 90 per cent. More recently, an additional 2.5 million children were taught to read in two years in India’s Madhya Pradesh.
Conventional wisdom becomes conventional because it most often proves true. And conventional wisdom says that educated societies are less prone to espousing extreme views. A key solution to Pakistan’s ills — one that is being entirely ignored by the state — is education, first literacy and then the fostering of ideas that can change society and alter its current trajectory.
To quote Freire, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
The writer is a member of staff.

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