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Using magistrates to apply Quran in schools, Pakistan rushes towards Talibanization

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Mutawaa is Arabic for the once feared Saudi religious police. Responsible for implementing the standards of behavior set by oil-fueled Wahhabism, its wings have been severed by the ongoing liberalization sweeping through Western Asia. But, under Imran Khan, Pakistan flies elsewhere. To implement the government’s new single national program, a strict religious police of public and private schools has been started. A Pakistani version of mutawwa is emerging.

Marked as the most important court case, in a letter dated November 10, the Punjab government’s school education department issued a directive that, in accordance with orders received from the Lahore High Court, all schools in the province must be rigorously checked for Quranic reading / Nazra skills.

Each school will be jointly inspected by the head of the district education authority and a district and session judge. Mobile phone numbers of school principals and teachers, as well as a list of several hundred schools targeted for inspection, were provided.

Reading the Koran under the supervision of maulvis is a normal and secular practice in every Muslim household, including that of the writer. But sending the police to enforce a tradition is new and bizarre. Preliminary reports suggest province-wide confusion and chaos, as well as a state of fear among children, teachers and school principals.

Police schools

Magistrates accompanied by police armed with rifles pounce on schools, questioning children aged 7 to 12. Their teachers are ordered out of the classroom or asked to stand silently in a corner. In some cases, principals have been asked to appear in person before authorities in various regions of the province.

Punishments are pronounced. Last week, a session judge in Nankana Sahib recommended disciplinary action against three principals. They were accused of giving insufficient attention to teaching the Quran as a separate subject, a requirement of the single national curriculum. The indictment says their schools had students who had Holy Quran paras and kept them in their school bags, which is gross negligence.

This requires an explanation. As the reader may know, no copy of the Quran can be kept with ordinary books. The invited magistrates accuse the children of bringing copies of the Koran from home in their backpacks with their textbooks. But what else can children do? Carry two backpacks? Rudimentary schools, as they exist in villages or poor urban areas, have barely enough lounges and no storage space. Cabinets, if there are any, are few in number while those with locks are even fewer.

The magistrates also noted that backpacks are thrown or placed on the ground. According to a principal at his school, at least four accidental falls from the holy book have occurred in a sixth-grade class. While these caused a stir, subsequent developments could not be known. The severity of the penalties which could possibly include those for blasphemy means that such incidents are usually hushed up unless they are deliberately used against rivals.

These are not the only subjects of concern to principals and teachers. Traditional respect demands that no one can turn their back on the Quran. What to do in a classroom full of children? As for the wuzu: a majority of schools do not have adequate toilets or clean water but, as we know, none can touch the Koran without being properly cleaned.

Path to Talibanization

Using a disguised identity, one teacher wrote that proper cleaning is particularly problematic for girls’ schools and even more so for coeducational schools. As per normal requirements, no girl or teacher can touch the holy book during her period. But the subject is so taboo that no one dares to bring it up in front of students or superiors. Is it rather laziness that explains why some Koranic teachers could not explain to the inspection teams their absence in class?

Ironically, school-to-school teams across the Punjab are supposed to check the teaching standards of the Quran, but their own members are significantly deficient. The unique national curriculum prescribes the teaching of the Quran with appropriate tajweed (pronunciation) of Arabic words. However, this is beyond the capabilities of most Quran teachers in the region, as they are rarely able to pronounce the letters Qaf and Ain as in Arabic.

The exceptions are madrasah graduates who spend their lives honing the skill of precise recitation. So, if the requirement of tajweed is to be met, logically, these people should be inducted as regular teachers. This goes against the categorical denials of the Minister of Education, Shafqat Mahmood, who claims that the existing school system is not being madrasa-ized.

What prompted the Lahore High Court to issue its orders so quickly? What was the urgency given a thousand other pending complaints relating to property disputes, theft, fraud, child abuse, rape and murder? The answer is in front of us: government ideologues have taken the reins of power. As in Afghanistan, the population is now at their mercy.

It wasn’t meant to be that way. Recall that Imran Khan’s unique national curriculum was initially presented as a means of ensuring equal opportunities for rich and poor, ordinary schools and the madrasa. And this is also the most amazing part of improving the quality of education.

So, are we about to see magistrates with armed guards inspecting school laboratories and the frequency of practical science work? Check whether the libraries are adequately stocked or the toilets are in working order? Will these teams tell 2.5 million out-of-school children where to find schools and teachers? Hell is likely to freeze over before that happens.

The lucky ones among us will remember school days as carefree and filled with joy, laughter and games. It’s like that in much of the world, and that’s what every child should have. Afghan children are not so lucky and now the children of Naya Pakistan are in the throes of a similar misfortune.

Grim-faced magistrates swooping down on schools, destroying the authority of teachers and school principals and putting terror in the hearts of all is a disgrace to the notion of education. It may not end here. The way we dress, speak and think will be more and more controlled. Imran Khans Pakistan rushes down the path of Talibanization.

This article first appeared in Dawn.

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