NYT on Pakistan’s Gülen schools

May 5, 2008

Turkish Schools Offer Pakistan a Gentler Vision of Islam – New York Times
Sabrina Tavernise is following in the grand tradition of NYT bureau chiefs reporting on Pakistan from the comfort of their home base in anywhere-but-Pakistan. In this case she at least had someone (Sebnem Arsu) who apparently spent some time in the country send her a quote or two rather than just regurgitating what the English press had to say. In this case, both the reporting and the analysis were uniquely shabby.
The story revolves largely around the theme of modern, moderate Turks bring enlightened Islam to backwards, fanatical Pakistan. Twice we’re told about or by Turkish teachers in Karachi something like: “Pakistanis everywhere assume he is not Muslim because he has no beard.”
That should have been the first clue to the article being crap. Look over the faces of Sindh’s Members of Parliament. Do you really think the people of that province (which includes Karachi) question the faith of anyone without a beard? I highly doubt more than 5-10% of the men of Karachi have full beards.
There’s no effort to understand the context of religion in Pakistan beyond what one might have gleaned from the headlines of the Times over the past year or so. I’m guessing the same lack of effort is exhibited by the Turkish teachers interviewed in the story – based on what they have to say and past experience of Muslims from the Ottoman lands living in those of the Mughals.
Not that I necessarily have anything against Gülen schools in Pakistan. My first observation would be that the average Pakistani’s religion is much closer to that of Fethullah Gülen than is the average Turk’s. The best evidence of this is that he was driven out of Turkey, but is able to open schools in Pakistan. The schools may even actually prove useful in the fight against extremism. As is both stated and ignored in the article, these schools are not really being chosen for the most part over some radical residential madrasa in the NWFP – there being chosen over missionary and military schools. These – the English educated middle classes – are actually the origins of the real support base for extremism and for international terror. (Many, many people have been making this point for years, but no one ever listens. For the press and political speeches, it’s always all about the madrasas.) Hopefully, by including a sincere, holistic and comprehensive religious component in the curriculum and extra-curricular life, they can short circuit the schizophrenia and frustration that drives people to associate the religion with hatred and violence.
I’ll skip commenting and speculating point by point on all the anecdotes of mistreatment by Pakistanis which make up the shaky support for the article’s thesis. The deeper problem with the article is that the following terms are thrown about (explicitly and implicitly) without the least hint of definition or examination: Islamism, moderni[ty|sm], Sufism, extremism, and moderat[eness|ion].
Really troubling is this

Illiteracy is one of the roots of problems dogging the Muslim world, said Matiullah Aail, a religious scholar in Quetta who graduated from Medina University in Saudi Arabia….Mr. Aail said: “Doctors and lawyers have to show their degrees. But when it comes to mullahs, no one asks them for their qualifications. They don’t have knowledge, but they are influential.”

“Mullahs” have a system of accreditation which is well established and quite thorough. (And is the ancestor of many of the practices of Western academia – especially in the education of doctors and lawyers.) Most of our problems came when people stopped asking for traditional Islamic scholarly credentials and started accepting certificates from the Islamic University of Medina. Had Muslim communities worldwide banned graduates of said University from serving as teachers and lecturers beginning in the ’80s we might be seeing 1/10 the problems we have today.

Of course there are exceptions – people for whom studying in Medina is an aberration in their resume. Dr. Aail may be one of those for all I know. I can think of several reasonable interpretations for what he’s quoted as saying. But in the tone and context it is presented here, it is precisely the attitude which led to the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jama`at-e Islami, and which motivates so many educated yet frustrated people around the world to support the most disgusting activities with their wealth and bodies. I pray everyday that Allah removes this poison and guides us to peace.

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