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Launch of National Report: “How Youth in Pakistan View State, Society, Religion, and Politics.”

On 26 March 2022, PIPS launched a national report based on a year-long PIPS engagement with educated youth of Pakistan through training workshops and social action projects conducted across Pakistan. The report includes key findings obtained through observation and survey of the university students along with recommendation on how to make youth an agent of positive change in an environment of growing radicalization and extremism.

The launch event was moderated by Safdar Sial, Joint Director PIPS, who gave a slight background of the report to be launched in the session. He shared that the report is a key product of a PIPS project, conducted with support of Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherland in Pakistan, whereby the organization conducted training workshops of university students from all across the country and developed a network of educated youth, collectively working for social harmony and peace in the country. He reported that the project was aimed at enabling the students to challenge the extremist and divisive elements and discourses in the country.

His highness, Ambassador Wouter Plomp, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Netherland to Pakistan, also graced the event with his presence. He briefly deliberated on the embassy’s engagement with PIPS, sharing that it started in 2017 when the embassy supported a PIPS study on the state of religious freedom in Pakistan. One key recommendation that came out of the study was to encourage critical thinking among university students. Following that recommendation, in 2020, the embassy again engaged PIPS to achieve a shared goal of enabling Pakistani students to identify the irrational narrative that can undermine the freedom of faith and realize the importance of interfaith dialogue and religious harmony. His Highness shared that he views youth as part of the solution, given they are provided with opportunities to think rationally and to learn openly.  Ambassador Plomp also commented on the Single National Curriculum (SNC), saying that it is necessary to address the reservations of different stakeholders on its content so to make this curriculum inclusive.

Ahmed Ali, the Program Manager at PIPS, gave a presentation on the key findings of the PIPS study. Explaining the context of engaging university students, he held that for a great part of the last two decades, Pakistani intelligentsia has viewed the problem of religious extremism as a phenomenon of rural periphery, assigning the problem to social and political borderlines, micro focusing on issues of poverty, illiteracy, and Madrassah education. He held that we missed the bigger picture as our vision was clouded by focusing on less important issues. Ahmed Ali seconded the views shared by then Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry a few months back in one of PIPS events, i.e., extremism in Pakistan is caused not by Madrassah but by university students. He held that it is true that our education system is not only promoting extremism, but it is also sustaining it. He gave examples of incidents of terrorism and violent extremism committed by educated youth in recent years.

Sharing study findings of the project, Ahmed Ali held that the public education in our country is deeply dogmatic, depriving our youth of quality education and the project gave us an opportunity to engage with the educated youth of Pakistan to try to broaden their perspectives. He shared that the experience is not much promising as our educated youth faced several challenges that continue to remain unaddressed. The important issues he highlighted include the tendency among university students for extremism, confusion and contradiction, gender prejudices, and identity crisis. He also shared recommendations drawn from the study such as redesigning of education curriculum, sensitizing students about the significance of rule of law and constitution, skill development in youth, educating students about the fundamental rights in the constitution, initiating a debate in parliament on faith-based nation-building, and others.

Three educationists and scholars then appraised the reported findings. Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed shared his thoughts on the environment on campuses and the role of teachers. Commenting on the findings, he held that it is about time we start giving serious thought to the problems identified in the PIPS study. He commenced his appraisal by sharing some quantitative data with the audience to explain the gravity of the situation. He reported that in the UNDP’s 2020 Human Development Index, Pakistan fell at 154th position in the list of 189 countries, and the 60 percent literacy rate in the country is still lower than other regional countries like Bangladesh or Malaysia. As per the figures he collected from several sources, there are 52,500,000 students in Pakistan, studying in almost 2,207,000 educational institutions. The country has some 233 universities and higher education institutions, with 1,850,000 students and 60,000 teachers. Hence, the average student-teacher ratio in the universities is hence very large, limiting meaningful engagement between teachers and their students.

Dr. Jaffar, an educationist for over two decades, shared his own observations and experience in the universities. According to him, university teachers in Pakistan are not serious in performing their duties well. Instead of equipping new knowledge through research, most teachers are relying on old notes and books. However, he agreed that there are structural barriers to research with universities lacking administrative focus, environment, resources, and infrastructure to conduct research studies. He held that teaching is a profession that demands honesty and integrity and advised his fellow teachers to understand the importance of their role in society.

Dr Khalid Masud, an author of several research papers and books on Islamic history and Political Islam, told the youth present in the audience that the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam, declared them to be the first pillar of nation-building and advised them to focus on their education. He admitted that the youth policies in the country have been more patronizing than participatory, as the state tried to dictate a defined narrative to the youth instead of letting them build one on their own. He criticized SNC for ignoring the diversity the youth represent. He also criticized the governments for not having a consistent approach in dealing with youth, as every new government came up with a new youth policy. He also found flaws in the teaching approach and methods in the university. He noted universities are focused on teaching natural sciences and there is limited support for students of social sciences. Similarly, universities do not focus on building the critical thinking and research skills of the students and most research studies are conducted with controlled methods and approaches.

Khursheed Nadeem, a writer and sociopolitical analyst, gave his appraisal on “Youth Extremism and Formation of Narrative.” He held that narrative building is a complicated process. While Pakistan has been trying to build a single narrative since its foundation, there is a plethora of social narratives popular in different segments of society. According to him, the narrative building around religious nationalism has contributed to the growing extremist tendencies in our people. He also held politicians responsible for the extremism as they used populist slogans to ignite division and clashes among their followers. He remarked that society needs a balanced point of view and societies to grow only when their people’s capabilities and potential are given chance to grow.