Lahore (AsiaNews) In Pakistan a national newspaper "has dared to tell" Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz that he is wrong when he says he is in favour of Islamiat or Islamic studies in the country's primary schools. In a recent editorial, the Daily Times criticised Mr Aziz for stating publicly in late May that Pakistan's school system should be based on national values and religious norms.
"In my personal view both religious and formal education are necessary from the beginning. Religious education helps character building," the prime minister said at the end of a conference on education.
"No sir," the paper replied, "you are wrong on both conceptual and empirical counts. If religious education helped in character building we would not have had the spectre of religious violence that has consumed thousands of lives so far and shows no signs of abating, the editorial said.
Instead, the paper offered the views of a well-known Muslim scholar, Javed Ahmad Ghamdi, who believes that Islamiat should start after grade five, otherwise religious education, without formal education from an early age, tends to produce religious and sectarian extremism. The compulsory teaching of the Qur'an should begin in grade six so that no mullah can "spoil an innocent mind".
The editorial article praised Dr Ghamdi's insightful views and regretted the fact that Mr Aziz failed to grasp his argument for its intrinsic value and its contextual significance
By emphasising "ethics" before the study of religion, universal values as opposed to those of a single nation or faith, Dr Ghamdi is clearly arguing that "ethics" and "religion" are two different categories. In doing so he has done a great service to this country, the paper believes.
"Since the benighted days of General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan has mixed religion and ethics with disastrous results." Saying that being Muslim in and of itself makes one a good human being is wrong. Society is full of religious-minded Muslims who are bad human beings.
According to Dr Ghamdi, for religion to become meaningful, spiritual, and socially relevant, it has to be part of a wider context based on universal ethical values.
Instead of appreciating the vigour of Dr Ghamdi's argument, Mr Aziz, supposedly a moderate and "enlightened" man, "chose to parrot the politically opportunist and cynical line that has become so familiar to us and which has been the bane of this society"
Fr Bonnie Mendes, who received the Association for Communal Harmony in Asia (ACHA) Star Award last year, told AsiaNews that the government has made great efforts in the education field trying to innovate but has been under strong pressures from extremists.
"On the one hand there is a pious desire to modernise education, and on the other hand there is the strong Islamist lobby that wants Islam included in all subjects," Fr Mendes explained.
However, Islamist pressures are not always welcomed. "In Sindh province, a social studies manual was published that included references to Muhammad, Islam's prophet. The wording however spoke of 'our prophet', something to which religious minorities objected, and so it was published referring only to 'the prophet'. A change and a significant one," he said.