Islamization Affecting Higher Education in Pakistan

Professors and students, former and current, claim students are “attached” to religion in universities throughout Pakistan — what’s being called Islamization in the classroom —  which has developed over a span of three decades and has affected universities and colleges throughout the country.

Critics say fear the increased Islamization in Pakistan’s top teaching institutions and among the growing middle class is helping dumb down academic standards and restrict students’ social life.

Hasan Askari, a former professor at Punjab University, said students are becoming increasingly attached to religion and drifting away from rational thinking. “The increasing Islamization has affected quality of education, as today, teachers stress more on conspiracy theories than logic,” he said.

The Islamic call to prayer occurs 5 times a day in the predominantly Muslim country of Pakistan. At universities such as Quaid-i-Azam, rated the best public university in Pakistan and the best Pakistani university in Asia, students are allowed a 15 minute break for prayers. They are also allowed to get up as soon as they hear the call for prayer. Many accuse this practice of allowing students such freedoms as condoning a chaotic academic life as professors must stop mid-lecture to wait for their students to return for at least 30 minutes.

Most female students at the university wear hijabs, a tight headscarf that hides all their hair, or the looser dupatta, which is traditional in Pakistan. They do not wear jeans nor do they sit close to male students; a sight common in university cafeterias is the two genders sitting as far as possible from one another despite it being not mandatory.

“There’s no intellectual excitement, no feeling of discovery, and girls are mostly silent note-takers, you have to prod them to ask questions,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist and one of Pakistan’s most prominent academics who used to teach there.

In liberal privately run universities there is greater social freedom and the genders intermix more — a female student sitting next to a male is more common — but schools such as these have become for the elite, and their offspring as schools like Quaid-i-Azam cater to the lower and middle classes.

Quaid-i-Azam University Vice Chancellor Masoom Yasinzai admitted academic standards had slipped over the years but insisted it was a country-wide problem and not to do with the growing focus on religion.

“Here at Quaid-i-Azam University, academic standards are not falling at an alarming rate,” he said, adding that the expression “Islamization” was being used out of context.

“We have given students the freedom to practice their religion and I think practicing religion is one’s individual choice.”

Islamization began in 1977 with the rise of military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. He embedded a conservative form of Islam into politics and affairs of state and ushered in Sharia law to run alongside the penal code. Trade unions and student bodies were banned in educational institutions, and Arabic and Islamic studies were made mandatory for all students until university level.

This phenomenon has many critics fearing that it will lead to not only lower academic standards, less social and gender equality, less lack of personal freedom but also to greater sectarianism and violence against minorities.

“If you have a very dominant view and very authoritarian worldview which this curriculum is teaching you, that ‘You are Muslims, Islam is a good religion and other religions are not good,’ that value system will create a social crisis in the society,” education analyst Farzana Bari stated.