Peaceful coexistence: Making space for differences

By Muhammad Ali and Reshma Parveen

The phenomenon of dealing with diversity through education has received increased attention throughout the world particularly in countries where diversity was realised as a part of society.

It has been observed that education can play an important role in bringing peace by making space for differences. For instance countries like South Africa, Ireland, etc., where conflict arose due to differences, education played its role to create harmony and peace in society.

In Pakistan, diversity is a basic fabric of society in terms of varied ethnicities, cultures, languages, faiths, interpretations of the faiths and so on. It is something, which cannot be overlooked easily. Ignoring or suppressing such a reality has sometimes created challenges in the form of conflict and unrest.

It is therefore imperative to first realise and recognise the diverse cultures, languages, ethnicities, religions, faith and/or different interpretations of our society. Then we need to take steps at multiple levels to transform the society’s diversity into strength by owning, respecting and celebrating the differences among the communities. Multidimensional measures are required to transform the practices in education at multiple levels such as policy, textbooks, school management and classroom teaching, learning and so on.

According to Kabeer (1994), policies play an important role in determining the dynamics of power and distribution of roles and resources among the different people in educational institutions. Therefore, the education policy needs to be sensitive towards diversity of all forms such as culture, ethnicity, religion, region and so on and so forth.

Pakistan’s education policy (2010) aims to promote national cohesion by respecting each others’ faith, religion and culture. However, it is not clear how this objective would be translated into practice. It also lacks guidelines for the educational institutions about how to implement it at the grassroots level.

It is observed that most school heads and teachers are not even aware of the existence of the educational policy. Hence they cannot be expected to have a know-how of creating harmony in society. Therefore, the policies should provide clear pathways for the schools on dealing with diverse students in a multicultural society. Furthermore, the implementation of the policy must be ensured by conveying the same to the schools through textbooks, policy documentation and other sources.

In our educational institutions, particularly in schools, textbooks are viewed as the major source of knowledge for the teachers and students. However, Ashraf (2009) argues that in Pakistan the textbooks are not balanced. Rather they are dominantly one-sided in terms of gender and culture education. Most illustrations and text in the books are focused on the prominent areas leaving the ‘different’ out. For example, our textbooks highlight the four cultures of the four provinces of Pakistan. In reality, there are many sub-cultures within the provinces that are neither clearly mentioned by the teachers nor given space in the textbooks. There are places like Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, which are seldom discussed in the textbooks. Similarly, only a few languages are highlighted in the social studies textbooks but there are hundreds of languages spoken in the country.

This kind of an approach proves useless in informing the children about the rich and diverse cultures of their country. Our textbooks need to be revised in order to provide a balanced and sensitive education to our children. In this regard, the authors of social science textbooks must be oriented about the cultural and anthropological approaches.

The teaching/learning process is also important in shaping the concepts. But the teachers here come to class with their own baggage of perceptions about a culture that has been carried on from their own schooling. Literature has highlighted that teachers expect a different behaviour from students coming from different backgrounds. It has been observed that the teachers label students and treat them differently based on their background, ethnicity or faith.

Many teachers also believe that they should stick with the material in textbooks only. Hence they do not make an effort in teaching about cultures other than what is given in the textbooks. Such kind of teaching approaches towards diversity also influences the negative attitude of students towards their fellow students. Consequently, the graduating students do not accept and appreciate the differences in their practical lives.

Teachers in general and social science teachers in particular need to learn about the background of students. Teaching a class of students with diverse backgrounds is not an easy task but these days almost all classrooms in Pakistan are full of students from different cultural backgrounds. Therefore, teacher education institutions must include a component on teaching children with diverse backgrounds.

The overall environment and practices are also very important for dealing with students from diverse backgrounds in the school. Schools need to develop such cultures, which are sensitive towards the diverse needs of their students. It is observed that admission policies at some educational institutes are discriminative towards students belonging to some particular religion, culture and/or ethnicity. Similarly, some of the students also face difficulty in gaining marks, if their religions, cultural and/or ethnicity or other related element is known by the examiner or paper checker. The school leadership needs to be sensitive towards such issues in order to treat all students equally.

Pakistan is a country with diverse cultures. The citizens of this country should learn how to accept, tolerate and celebrate the differences rather than reject each other. Therefore we need an education system capable of nurturing mature citizens who can coexist peacefully. The educational institutions here should have the capacity to positively influence society rather than get influenced by the stereotypes and prejudices existing in it.

The writers are educators at private educational organisations. alhan2005@gmail.com

Courtesy: DAWN

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  1. Respected All,
    “For me when I recall the founding period of Muslim history what I find the Prophet challenging the most is the narrow tribalism of his people. He gave them a sense of shared history. They had thought of themselves as Arab tribes imprisoned in their ancestral traditions. He reminded them of two things. One was that they were linked to others because they were human beings who shared a common humanity. The second was that they lived among Christians and Jews with whom they shared common Abrahamic roots. The recovery of that vocabulary and consciousness is what I see as probably one of his greatest contributions.

    If Muslims have anything to learn from their Prophet it is this, that the vocabulary of tolerance, of respect, and of mutual acknowledgment exists within the Islamic experience – talk of alienation, of civilisational clashes, is not the majority experience of Muslim history; it is a minoritarian experience, and it is an experience that has always failed. What we need to begin to do is to pluralise our own discourse about what is the new narrative. I started by referring to problems that had occurred during the Dissolution, in Henry VIII’s time, and I talked about slavery, because these represent examples of how we move beyond events.We cultivate out of our common experiences a vocabulary that allows us to build bridges rather than to allow walls to arise.

    I want to end by reference to a narrative within the Muslim tradition attributed to a great mystic. This is Farid al-Din ‘Attar who describes in a way the issues that are before us today. His book is called The Conference of the Birds. In this instance he treats birds as a community. Birds from different parts of the world come together to ask of themselves two questions. First of all, what does it mean to think of oneself as a bird? In other words, what is ‘birdness’? Secondly, if that ‘birdness’ makes any sense, what is it that is shared? How can one identify what is shared?

    There are many birds who argue that they are content with who they are. They know their single identity that one is a parrot or an ostrich or a peacock. They feel comfortable with and are reluctant to engage in this talk about common shared ‘birdness’. Many of those birds leave the debate and the conference, and are happy to go back and preach to their own flock about the special characteristics they have. But some birds remained committed and they embark on a journey to find answers to their dilemma. This journey is described by Farid al-Din ‘Attar in The Conference of the Birds as a quest through seven valleys and over seven mountains. During each stage of the journey they deconstruct part of their limited experience and leave it behind. As they move on they strengthen their shared bond. But they don’t get a straightforward answer to what it is they are seeking. Eventually, when they arrive at what they think is their final destination, they are led in through a door beyond which they think that some being exists who will give them the answer. They wait for a very long time and nobody comes. They don’t receive an answer and they realise that nobody’s going to come. So they sit in the room in which they are and they reflect on their experiences. As they reflect, they become conscious of now as plurality, they have also discovered their shared humanity and learned to live it and recognise it as a common spiritual bond as well as origin.

    Thirty of them had survived. The Persian word for thirty is sih and birds are called murgh. So, they see themselves as the simurgh, the thirty birds. In their original conversations, they had been told that the Being who was their origin and would provide them the answer was a mythical bird called the simurgh. And so, as they reflect on their experiences and their commonality, they realise that the Being is within them; they are the simurgh. Perhaps out of our common quest and common conversation will emerge a vocabulary that will enable us to fight the intolerance of our times.”

    Thank you.

    resource-from IIS page—-

  2. Ali and Parveen,

    Good piece of work!

    Mr. Toojik: Your personal comments about the article would have been more meaningful and providing details of the source- book/ article,year of publication and author of what you have reflected above will help others to read and get insight to the piece of good work who ever has written it.

  3. Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful review of the book by Attar and the interpretation of Simurgh…I really got a deep insight into it.

  4. Good day to you sirs,
    I was very moved by your comments. Your thoughts on inclusion and empathy reflect my (sadly) limited knowledge of the Prophet’s teachings; they are noble ideals that should indeed guide the conduct of our everyday lives. Unfortunately, we in the West are more likely to come across stories about jihad and the radicalization of Islam, than about enlightenment and compassion which you express so eloquently. Your words are a refreshing reminder that we all have more in common than most people realize. Thank you.

  5. Ali and Reshma,

    This is a very good introspection and analysis, and the centrality of school, curriculum and teaching learning as the ‘space’ for peaceful coexistence.

    In fact we have ‘politicized’ this space so much that talking of curriculum and school has become a political and sectarian discourse in our context.

    I wonder what ‘other’ spaces are relevant in our context in GB for example, where communities lived side by side, meaning peacefully coexisted for centuries, when there was no formal ‘spaces’ like schools? Can we say, it is the very formal spaces-schools as ‘spaces’ which made us more ‘sectarian and intolerant’ in the first place, because of the issues you have raised with current state of teaching and learning?

    What about mosques, madrassas, tribes, villages and governance institutions,political parties the media and finally ‘family’ as a ‘space’ for teaching ‘peaceful coexistence? After all in our context less then 5% of women and below 30% of the school going children are able to go to schools in areas like say Diamer and some parts of Gilgit and Baltistan?

  6. Thanks Ali and Reshma for well elluboration of syllabus or curriculum. In my opinion there is no flaw in any text book. we as muslim have a common guide book that is the holy quran.This holy books teaches us to deal in good manner with all types of living things like animals, birds and plants as well. Theoritically we all are reciting it with melodious voices but no body is ready to comprehend its essence. 95 % of leading people have become the prejudices and all are looking the things are dealing matters with blinkers kepping in view sectionalism, nationalism, nepotism, favourtism, regionalism as well. All we need to reflect on our own actions and need to make commitment that we should respect each others traditions and values of all human being. The eastern extremists calls the name to assasination of human being as jehad and western call the assasination of human being as war against terrorism.No body or group at world level is there to stop and demonish such inhuman actions.At GB level the leading authority whether that is religious or political are primarily responsible for disintegration and dishormony. Apart from this absence of good governance also leads frustration of people to at greater level.

    Ali Mehr
    Social activist

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