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Questions on Campuses - By: Javed Jabbar, The News, May 29, 2017

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Is Mashal Khan's brutal mob killing in a northwestern university in Pakistan in April 2017 on  unfounded allegations of blasphemy a symptom of a malignant disease that stifles intellectual  freedom in Pakistani universities in general?

There is a malaise which occasionally erupts into sores and boils. But its  main roots are structural and managerial  flaws. They are religion -driven only in some specific  aspects and individual cases. There are other  causes for the ailment. Unresolved tensions between a Federal Higher Education Commission and newly empowered, assertive Provincial Governments; proliferation of new universities without a commensurate expansion of qualified faculty; deficient standards of most public sector colleges and schools that provide students unprepared for the next levels of education; weak governance and ineffective enforcement of discipline, for both staff and students. The last of these factors most tragically enabled the hyper-swift, unchecked murder.

No-go areas for freedom of speech and research on campuses cover several , but not all facets of faith, institutions, organizations and gender. These include: atheism; questioning the reverential status and finality of Prophet Muhammad; the sacredness of the Quran's text; strong criticism of the superior Judiciary and the Armed Forces; the extremism of campus-based student wings of two or three political parties; gay and lesbian rights. In these respects, the intellectual freedom which is supposed to be a hall-mark for universities does not exist in Pakistan. The country has plenty of company. Neither does such freedom exist in virtually all other 56 Member-States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.  It is cold comfort to note that even in certain non-Muslim-dominant countries, specially in neighbour India, religious and political extremism can frequently assault free speech.

Other than the red list of stay-away subjects, there is considerable scope for freedom of expression , verbal and written. The quality of most research output in the social sciences by academia in Pakistan is below globally-acknowledged par. Yet faculty and students with unorthodox or comparatively liberal views engage in  candid exchanges. Discussions include diametrically opposite definitions of, and perceptions about secularism; the need to promote respect for pluralism and religious minorities; the military's dominance in certain spheres; political misgovernance and corruption; the need for gender equity and increased investment in human resource development and other direly required reforms. Discourse is often robust and lively. 

As a visiting professor or guest lecturer at over 25 universities, colleges and other higher education and training institutions, civil and military, across the country, this writer has expressed views at strong, distinct variance from those held by religious political parties, including a couple with student wings on campuses, as also at variance with views held by some of the hosts. Even when one has stressed the merits of secularism and the wilful mistranslation of the term and concept in textbooks and in mainstream Urdu mass media to mean " atheism " or " godlessness ", there has not been a single episode over the past 50  years when one's candid views have been heckled or challenged. My frequent references to the need for vigorous ijtehaad ( the application of new knowledge and experience while remaining Muslim ) have been similarly accepted or even endorsed by most listeners.

In a few instances, I have sensed unease in sections of students and  faculty. But not once have I been threatened or prevented from speaking. Surprisingly, one is also re-invited. 

Sceptics may see non-disruptive reaction to my utterances as evidence of their innocuousness ! One respectfully disagrees. The record speaks. Perhaps YouTube may offer an example or two of the explicitness used by this writer to convey thoughts and opinions on subjects considered sensitive -- without causing violent reactions.

Though campuses in Pakistan are not always vibrantly bustling with radically progressive debate and non-violent discourse on controversial themes, inter- actions between differing perspectives do occur --- while abstaining from the restricted zone of subjects cited earlier. A creeping religiosity has steadily advanced in society at large even as the realms of entertainment, TV, cinema, and fashion shows prominently project women who do not wear hijaabs or burqas. Campuses reflect primarily reflect the conservative rather than the modernist trends. 

Showy, faith-based piety , otherwise apparently as cultural as it is religious , decorative rather than violently destructive can, however, be  occasionally combustible to become suddenly explosive. This fuse is lit by conditions external to campuses , primarily the obscurantism and exclusivism fostered by madrassas, sections of media ( including unlicensed religious TV channels that continue to transmit by obtaining stay orders from high courts against regulatory shut-down orders ), a new frenzy in some segments of society to react instantly and violently to suspected or actual examples of blasphemy signalling a disturbing collective derangement, a general grievance against western excesses in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen , Libya, Syria, et al. In at least two verses of the Quran , God  reserves the right to hold accountable those who attempt to character-assassinate Prophet Muhammad -- violent retribution by humans for blasphemy is thus prohibited in Islam.

In this very same Pakistan in which a religion-linked lynching took place on a university campus , not once in the ten general elections held in 1970 , 1977 , 1985 , 1988 , 1990 , 1993 , 1997 , 2002 , 2008 and 2013 have the religious political parties secured more than ten percent of the popular vote. Mainstreams of both society and campuses, notwithstanding the no-go areas for intellectual freedom , consistently prefer religious  and political moderation. The terrible killing of Mashal Khan is a shameful aberration which should accelerate substantive reforms required in the universities of Pakistanas part of a larger social, progressive renewal.

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(The writer is a former Senator & Federal Minister & Member, Senate Forum for Policy Research. www.javedjabbar.com)

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