Last week, 23-year-old Mashal Khan, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University (AWKU), Mardan, was lynched on university premises. The fact that it happened at an institution of higher learning is perhaps the saddest part of the whole episode. However, we have been here before. It happens every time when a mob of thugs attacks a young boy, a newly married couple or a poor woman and uses religion to satisfy our collective vulgar lust for violence. In many ways, this time is no different in reminding us how rotten our inner core is. But something is also different. The university, its faculty and its administrators, cannot absolve themselves from their responsibility of creating tolerance, a mission in which they have spectacularly failed.
The problem is not just with AWKU. It is much bigger. We cannot ignore that our institutions of learning are failing to create an environment where people can express themselves, learn from one another and disagree with dignity. If a university education does not teach us to respect one another or, at the very least, respect law, then there is something seriously broken in our institutions. Those who profess from the lectern and those who administer from plush offices must recognise that they are failing in their very basic duty, to equip the students with the basic tools of understanding, tolerance and human decency.
The increasing level of intolerance at the university has been there for anyone to see, but few choose to really see it. It wasn’t long ago that the Dean of Islamic Studies at Karachi University was killed. Others at our universities and colleges have seen a similar fate for their beliefs. Barring an institution or two, there is a real worry among faculty and students to express themselves or to even speak up lest a wrong word may make them another statistic, whose funeral prayers will not be offered by the local imam.
Universities across the country, in the light of the tragedy in Mardan, and other countless incidents of religious intolerance and bigotry, must take stock of their core mission. The core mission cannot simply be to accept students after an exam, make teachers come to class on time and dump information, ensure that the institution has regular tests, collect fees, calculate GPA and send the students back to where they came from. The university is not a tunnel in time from which we all must pass through. Instead, it is a place where ideas and ideals are formed, and foundations of a better society are laid.
The university leadership, faculty, staff and students need to own the evil that exists within all of us, and come up with serious, actionable strategies to create tolerance, understanding, respect and recognition of diverse points of view. This needs to be done at all levels and in all classes, regardless of the subject. Whether the student is pursuing a degree in mass communication or mathematics, statistics or sociology, the curriculum and the classroom must ensure that the students debate and discuss with respect and understanding, and respond to opinions by the strength of the argument and not the size of the mob. Above all, it must ensure that students are law-abiding citizens and are willing to act with integrity and fundamental human decency in trying times.
There has to be real evaluation by the universities and the powers that govern these institutions, on what higher learning means in terms of creating socially conscious, decent, respectful and tolerant human beings. The university’s mission, ultimately, is to be a place of inquiry and to create citizens who take us forward towards rational thought, equality and justice.
If a university fails to empower its students with fundamental tools of coexistence with others who do not share the same worldview, it has failed miserably and is no longer worthy of our social, human or capital investment.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2017.
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