Saving the children of Pakistan

By now, I am tired of reading article after article about the future of Pakistan being in peril and acutely aware of the impending risks. It has all been said already, the hypocrisy of the government, the affair of the country with the Taliban, the spread of radical thought and intolerance of minorities. At times I get angry; sometimes deeply frustrated but then I just deny it all even exists, for the love of the country of my origin. Then, a heart wrenching tragedy occurs where it is no longer possible for me to look away.

March 27th marked such a day, where this sadness stared at me right in the eye and I thought, "Is there a bigger testimony to the loss of the future than scooping up the bodies of children from a playground?"

May I dare point out the cliché that our children are the future of our country?

How can we save our children from our own people and the tragedies that follow them to our schools and playgrounds?

It was not too long ago when we observed the anniversary of APS attacks in Peshawar and now this carnage. The Lahore attacks have been devastating and are a despicable act of cowardice. Anyone who selects children as a target of their terror has to have tremendous conviction of the rightfulness of such an act of horror. I wonder, exactly what kind of mind set allows such a delusion?

A way of thinking that is absolute and non negotiable which justifies extinguishing a human life and that too of a child.

As a psychiatrist, a big part of my work with patients involves helping them problem solve about an issue that causes them distress. As their doctor and therapist, I help them look at their problems from a different perspective, a different point of view and understanding. Thinking patterns are deeply engrained in people and it requires considerable effort and skill to assist them with such changes.

It also takes a long time to help them see the fallacies in their thinking and then for them take proper action to rectify them. Majority of the time, these are thinking patterns that evolved in their childhood and are internalized through their upbringing, education, family values and their culture.

Then I think about my country of origin where I grew up and wonder what has gone wrong with the thought process of our nation? What bothers me even more is how we are raising our children that are vulnerable to such radical thought. This radicalization did not happen overnight but slowly over an entire generation.

Pakistan today hardly reflects the tolerant Pakistan that I experienced as a child. I grew up in the late 70s and 80s, where the wave of radicalization, though begun, but had not turned into a tsunami of death and destruction. Most of my education was in a school established by Zoroastrian philanthropists. I routinely sat in a classroom of children with different religions. Many of my teachers came from faiths besides Islam. We felt safe in our environment. We ate together and played together. Every morning in the assembly we said a prayer, sang our national anthem and poetry by Allama Iqbal (the national poet of Pakistan), asking the Almighty to make us the light that makes way for others. We were in it together in peace and harmony.

Every so often, there was a comment of intolerance that was brushed off by the tolerant majority. An incident happened that I remember to this day. I was in third grade and my best friend was a girl by the name of Rita. We often shared our lunch. One day a class mate of mine said to me, "You shouldn't eat what Rita brings!"

I was puzzled, "But why?" I was quite distraught at the proposition of not having a piece of her aloo-paratha (potato stuffed flat bread) that her mother always neatly folded in her tiffin box.

She said "Because she is Hindu!". I don't remember much except for going home and asking my mother what is wrong with the food that Rita brings from her home.

I can't recall what my mom said but it was something to the effect of, "She doesn't know what she is talking about and that before partition Hindus and Muslims lived together in the same country." I was very relieved that I wouldn't be deprived of my daily cut of Rita's paratha.

The only time, I felt a difference between myself and others was during the compulsory "Islamiyat" class (study of Islam) when the non-Muslim girls would go to get a civics lesson while we stayed in the classroom for our "Islamiyat" class. Those classes were mandated and in the tenth grade exam overseen by the Sind Board of Education, "Islamic Studies" was a mandatory course.

I had heard that students never score high grades in Civics while getting a 80 plus marks was possible in Islamic studies. Looking back, it seemed like institutional discrimination at the level of the Board of Education. I also vaguely remember that the Sunni curriculum was different than the Shia curriculum. The only reason I felt thankful for being a Sunni is one question on the exam was always about writing the character sketch of one of the Caliphs and since they were only four in number, I had less studying to do than my Shia classmates who had to memorize the lives of the twelve Imams in addition. It was only one month ago that I asked my father exactly which Sunni sect we belonged to since there had been so much talk about Barelvis, Deobandis, Wahabis and Salafis. He gave me an answer but I realized the answer really did not matter.

My college education was at a former Catholic college that had been "nationalized" and used to be run by nuns until the government decided that it could no longer be that. My English and Physics teachers were both Christians by faith. This never came up as an issue for the staff or the students. We routinely heard the sounds of the bells from the nearby church and it was nothing but routine life for us at college.

The medical school that I studied at was founded by The Aga Khan of the Ismaili Sect of Muslims and our logo carries a verse from the Quran from the Surah Al-Imran.

"And hold on to the rope of Allah and do not become divided".

We lived that verse in our actions throughout our medical training.

But somewhere things changed deeply in the culture of my country. It was a slow insidious process that spread quietly throughout our educational system and over all. It started with the "nationalization process" in the 70s and progressively causes deterioration of the school and colleges. I remember that all government schools had a chalky yellow "shalwar kameez" (traditional pant and shirt) uniform and the term "Peelay school kay" (the one wearing yellow to school) was considered an insult.
It was our fathers and grandfathers that witnessed the transition of the system along with constant import of radical thought and ideas from outside. I look back and wish that they had stood up for their children then.

I wish they had said "no" to the enforcing of extreme views in our country. I wish they had besieged the capital and demanded the government of a dictator to stop harboring and nurturing jihadists, no matter how much money it brought to the country from the west or elsewhere.

Today I mourn, not just the children that died in the APS and Lahore but all children of my country. I grieve that we have failed to teach our children tolerance and humanity in the last twenty years and this has led them to become radicalized adults.

I am saddened that this generation of children now growing up in a country where Christians are burned alive for blasphemy. Hindus have been driven out of Sind while the remaining have accepted their fate and are resigned to their daughters being abducted and forcibly converted. Many Parsis have fled the country. Ahmediyya minority are routinely persecuted and Shias are being systematically killed.
I wonder if those children were "safe" even before the bomb went off.

Is our educational system encouraging critical thinking or harboring divisiveness?

I read more and more about people demanding action against the terrorist in the country but very little is being done to prevent turning our children into radicals.

As a physician, it's important to treat the disease but there has to be appropriate measure to prevent the occurrence of the disease. In my previous article on the cancer of extremism, I used the cancer metaphor for extremism and radical thought and carrying that forward, we must take bold steps to eliminate all the factors that lend our children susceptible to this cancer. Prevention has to be the goal along with eradication of terrorism today. Reform must occur in the thoughts of our people especially the young minds that are actively imbibing the messages of hate rampant throughout their surroundings.

Tolerance and humanity has to be part of the educational curriculum. Our children need to learn that goodness comes from an individual's actions and contribution to the society, not merely following of religious doctrine.

Why do we have only one Maulana Edhi in a country of a few billion? Why is Pakistan not giving birth to humanitarians and philanthropists consistently?

We have become a merely a herd that is being pushed by an extremist agenda. Plagued by mistrust and conspiracy theories, we have been deprived of the ability to think rationally. The voices that speak against the extremism are targeted by bullets and either they comply or leave.

Are the children of my country really alive?

Are their souls breathing clean air of humanity or are they are being poisoned to hate their own?

They are growing up in a country where murderers can be martyrs and women's right to protection are protested. A country where a Nobel Prize is seen as disgrace and treason, can we teach our children to have high aims? A person who chops off his own hand for the sake of the Prophet becomes a hero and yet the Prophet's message of love and forgiveness does not resonate with anyone?

I look back and see how despite going to a good English medium school, we still had limits to expanding our minds. We were fed history of glorified conquests of Muslim rulers, narratives of Muslim kings who established kingdom in non-Muslim lands and of the lost glory of Islam. The mandatory Pakistan Studies pushed patriotism without due reflection on the actions of our rulers post-partition.

The curriculum focused on the fantasy of the rise of Muslims in the world again. I had hoped for that too, through advances of knowledge, education and scientific excellence, that hoping we will have pioneers and researchers like the time of Al-Beruni . I had never imagined that things would unfold as death and destruction as being the path to eternal glory. The two decades of extreme thought has resulted in a 30 some year old Mumtaz Qadri and what has followed his execution.

In the incessant and rabid pursuit of religious teachings without due thought and understanding, our humanity has lost its way.

The time has come to advocate tolerance and discourage extremism right from the root. It has to start within our homes and our communities and in our schools. There have been calls for regulation of seminaries which is very much needed along with changes in the curriculum in the mainstream schools. The current curriculums are deficient and biased.

A complete overhaul of our system of education is severely needed.

I cannot deny that there are issues that have pushed our youth towards radical thought including lack of economic opportunities, senseless bureaucracy, drone attacks and persistent intervention of the west, but the seeds of this crop were already planted by our own policy makers and governments two to three decades ago. A multi-step intervention is required but we should not lose sight of the generation that is currently being raised.

So, I look back and wonder who killed the children in Peshawar and Lahore? Was it a bomb or the hateful ideology of an intolerant society?

Are we not killing our own children little by little every day?

I hope we still have time to save the remaining children of Pakistan.