Badmaash Elite

Aug 2015

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Artist: Madiha Hyder

Artist: Madiha Hyder

Issue 9: Enduring Imperialisms

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On the 12th of February, 2015, after four days in an intensive care unit, Syed Murtaza Shah succumbed to the injuries he had sustained in a typically boisterous exchange withfellow students and their cohorts. He was 16 years old. He was also a student of mine.

According to police investigators, an altercation had occurred between Murtaza and the suspects Humayun and Raza, sons of ex-police constable Sajjad, after the latter teased a female family member of his friend and neighbor, Saif.

Both sides exchanged heated arguments. On February 8, just four days before he was killed, Saif was in the market along with Murtaza when Humayun and Raza arrived with their accomplices and ambushed the unsuspecting pair of friends. Armed with metal rods, one of the suspects hit Murtaza on his head, fracturing his skull. Murtaza fell on the ground and lost consciousness while the culprits continued beating him. A grainy CCTV footage of the incident has been made available by social media groups campaigning for the arrest of the suspects.

Murtaza’s presence at the scene of his murder might have been coincidental. He might have also tried mitigating the conflict that had arisen between the two groups–but he was not a stranger to such situations. At school, his name featured in a number of boisterous fights, or phaddas as they are referred to in playground vernacular. He wasn’t always the aggressor, but like many other children, he understood that violence was a tool that ensured his survival in the brutish environment of school life.

Of course, by saying this, I do not wish to contest the monumental grief that his family undoubtedly feels at this time. I do not want to imply, in any way, that Murtaza had it coming. Nor do I wish to insinuate any flaw in his upbringing: he was a funny, thoughtful and well-groomed boy who demonstrated intelligence and potential. I simply wish to bring attention to broader questions about youth violence in elite schools: How can a young person display such promising traits and also engage in senseless violence on a regular basis? Why is liberal private education–the most expensive, and supposedly the best this country has to offer–failing to curb playground violence? What makes children carry blunt objects and cruel intentions whilst shamelessly enjoying a sense of legal and social impunity?

In my personal experience as a teacher in some of Pakistan’s most elite schools, I have come across hundreds of incidents where children instrumentalize violence to resist or reinforce social hierarchies. In my experience, whenever a parent of a participant is informed about such incidents, they can be relied upon to act in a number of predictable ways.

Parents that I have met tend to blame playground violence on the disappearance of traditional values or on schools for failing to do their job properly. Some beat the living daylights out of their children in order to teach them the virtues of non-violence. Others make excuses for their children, stating that they are innocent victims of unruly, self-entitled badmaash children. It is hard for them to acknowledge that ‘good’ children, like Murtaza, often have to do ‘bad’ things to fit in.

The problem goes beyond the absence of traditional values. In fact, violence in schools is not a reflection of values being abdicated, but rather a reflection of elite values being integrated. It is a sign of students internalizing the ideological violence of the upper classes. The boys that killed Murtaza were not badly integrated, but rather, well-integrated in the traditional order that our society champions. They were adhering to patriarchal notions of honor, establishing the authority of their kinship networks, simulating survivalistic rituals of social competition.

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But, what are the roots of violence on school campuses? Research on playground violence in Pakistan is limited but the data that is available confirms a grim reality. A recent analysis conducted by Plan International and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) found that 43% of Pakistani students experience varied forms of violence at school. However, this number is bound to be woefully imprecise because “in many cases, violence is so commonplace, it becomes normalized for children, who don’t report such behavior, don’t regard it as unusual or wrong, and often become perpetrators themselves”, according to Mark Pierce, the Asia Regional Director of Plan International.

This is a distressingly high rate. As the report points out, widely accepted ideas of masculinity and power manifest themselves in violent acts that are normalized from a young age. Boys are taught to “revel in the use of power over others”, the report explains.

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The report concludes that as long as this notion of violence remains central to relationships, including between peers, with adults, and in future adult relationships, the move to prevent violence remains incomplete.

Other studies on adolescent violence have shown links between rowdy behavior and psychological distress (lack of emotional support and exposure to violence at home can make it harder for students to confront and express their feelings). Poor academic performances also contribute towards the problem. Students displace the shame of being an intellectual failure into the social realm where validation and respect is often earned through one’s ability to exercise violence over others.

However, if one is to look deeper into the motives of these fights, a troubling issue comes up. According to a study conducted in the US: “The most common goal was retribution, and the justifications and excuses offered indicated this stemmed not from an absence of values but from a well-developed value system in which violence is acceptable.”

The question then becomes: where do the values of elite schools come from? In this essay, I explore how youth violence is a symptom of a broader elitist narrative which has turned the playground into a simulation of power struggles in the wider social environment. I then analyze the contentious relationship between secular education and religious authorities and how religious institutions–acting on risky misinterpretations and reactionary sensationalism–undermine the primary purpose of all education (religious or otherwise): to weed out rigid and weak ideologies and replace them with inclusive ideals of fairness and justice.

“For things to stay the same, everything has to change.”

Many students in elite schools tend to belong to powerful families, often linked to feudal backgrounds. Many of them, such as Murtaza’s killers, bring with them a sense of judicial impunity enjoyed by people of their socio-economic class.

A few days after the sordid incident some pictures emerged on social networking sites, in which the suspects are shown in the company of Mr. Ahsan Iqbal, the current Planning, Reforms and Development Minister. According to campaigners such as Ahmed, the police’s failure to apprehend all the culprits is due to the fact that police investigators are backing the influential killers, instead of bringing them to justice: “They (alleged killers) are roaming freely in the area but the police are unable to arrest them.
The police are backing the killers,” said Ahmed, the protester and campaigner.

Another protester said that the police officers were not taking the murder case as seriously as required notwithstanding the clear-cut instructions of the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

This perception of endemic social injustice is often the first cause of antagonism between groups of children. Smug egos fantasize about power in two ways: either with a sense of elitist entitlement (as Murtaza’s murderers did) or a brutish notion of social retribution (as Murtaza often expressed). And, in a country where a parental state is either absent or abusive, the resultant social insecurities promote vigilante action (mafia-style rhetoric of alternative justice and filial peerage) as the common right of every principled individual.

The allure of unsentimental power is constantly reproduced in a pop culture that children end up consuming. TV shows feature countless scenes where servants are demeaned without any justification. Presented as emotional punching bags, who are always a nuisance during the protagonist’s moment of distress, the working class are television’s favorite targets of elitist angst.

Children internalize this unsentimental view of power. I have seen it in the way they treat the peons, custodians and guards at their schools. But what should be expected of them when we are injecting them with the idea that the acquisition of social status will one day enable them to thwart the mobility of ideas that are dangerous or irritants to their privilege? How can we expect them to act on communal spirit and not on feelings of personal ambition that we have taught them as the highest form of virtue?

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At this point it may be necessary to go deeper into the history of elite schools, to see what it is in them as institutions that produces the sort of violence Murtaza fell victim to. Education has emerged as a curious social currency in post-colonial Pakistan. In his infamous, Minute On Indian Education, the anglicist Thomas Babington Macaulay, argued for the formation of “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” He noticed that “English was spoken by the Indian ruling classes” and was of the opinion that this could prove helpful for administrative purposes:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern […] To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country.”

The University of Madras, formed in 1857, became the recruiting ground for generations of trained bureaucrats. Education bestowed special social status upon those who held sway in the imperial administration as well as in the princely states to the south. On the other hand, as pointed out by Hetukar Jha in”Decay of Village Community and the Decline of Vernacular Education in Bihar and Bengal in the Colonial Era,” British policies regarding education and land control adversely affected both the village structure and village institutions:

“British policy skewed in favor of the filtration theory of education[from the higher class people to the lower classes or the general people], and it seems, worked to block to a significant extent the entry into the middle classes from below.”

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This elite social status was a relief from commonality for the local elite but from the perspective of those in the most desperate social bracket, education spared you from the humiliation of colonial subjugation. It was not something that brought you emancipation, it was something that bought you favors from the masters. This gap in policy created deep socio-economic divisions, and the ‘educated’ classes soon came to be associated with the colonial administration. This, in turn, led to enduring resentments that manifest themselves as hyper-paranoias about Western education. To this day, Western education is considered by many within the Subcontinent to be void of moral and ethical values.

Such self-serving exercise of power can inspire disgust. But, it can also seduce and instill an envious desire to possess it. In his essay, ‘The Thematic and The Problematic’, Partha Chatterjee, investigates the bi-level processes of nationalist thought in which “one appears to oppose the dominating implications of post-Enlightenment European thought,” but on another level, seem “to accept that domination”.

Most parents whom I have come across have an incoherent vision of the education they desire for their children. They are unclear and undecided about which elements of modern education are to be filtered out of the class-room, and which traditional values are meant to substitute them. Moreover, there is no understanding of how to resolve the conflict between the vanity of the upper class that demands the appearance of modernity and the structures of kinship, that demand loyalty towards family, lineage and tradition. In other words students are meant to compete in the modern world, but are denied any means of intellectual engagement with it. A lot of young people are lost in this unexplained and unacknowledged gap in our system.

Perhaps this is why, when I asked Murtaza about the importance and function of education in his life, he responded (as most students do) in terms of class ambitions: a well-paying job, higher living standards, a desire to acquire trophy wives from respectable (read: powerful) families, etc.

Rarely do any students express any intellectual curiosity for the subject, or the sort of benefits that academic exploration can have for the wider community. A seemingly large majority of Pakistanis do not think of education as a necessary tool for constructing fair and just societies. Instead, it is imagined as a way of keeping old power current. Children of elite families are expected to get any education that fits an economic trend, lands them a lucrative job, gives them social legitimacy through which they can reinforce the traditional power of class–which, in turn, is essential for the survival of traditional kinship networks.

In contemporary Pakistan, ‘status’ has become a euphemistic term for a social currency that allows the upper class to enact ideological violence on the uneducated lower classes, expressing it in the form of political blame, social embarrassment and self-serving notions of deserving and non-deserving citizens.

In this context, it is not surprising to see that the Pakistani elite education is met by two distinct reactions. The first can be found mainly in orthodox religious groups. This group and their cohorts–lets call them Group A–respond with immediate disdain towards modernity on the suspicion that it is aligned with the interests of imperialist conspirators. The historical subjugation of Muslims is rationalized as a cultural rather than political failure. The idea is whatever happened to Muslims, happened because they had done something to offend God. Perhaps, contamination of foreign ideas weakened the fundamentals of the Muslim belief system. So, we ought to revert to our ‘lost’ or pre-colonial culture, and all our problems will miraculously disappear.

Others – let’s call them Group B – who seem to champion Western liberal education, often react to the chaos of broken social relations by building value-systems that seem to fit their personal illusions about how society works. So, education becomes the institution through which to make ‘legitimate’ (read: self-serving) claims to power: ‘I am educated, and that gives me power, so my needs take priority over the needs of the uneducated masses.’

Many members of this group have family members who have prospered through migration to countries such as the UK and the US. The remittances they send back home carry a positive image of the West as a place where the worthy are fairly rewarded. Importation of the values that allowed for the success of a family member, can get closely tangled with inherited notions of colonial culture, contemporary English culture and cultural references, leading to the production of a parallel and disconnected elite that cannot even read or speak any of the indigenous languages. In fact, a new generation of children can barely read the (Urdu) writing on the wall: wall-chalkings are nothing but scribbles in a language they do not understand.

Of course, there is a plethora of other associations. Many well-meaning people, like Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and her father genuinely believe in the emancipatory power of education. But, for the purposes of this article, I will be examining the two groups mentioned above because I find them to be the most problematic, and the loudest, within Pakistan.

The former group seems to have developed an unhealthy obsession with cultural imperialism, leading to what Paul Gilroy calls’: the construction of “a nation as an ethnically homogenous object”. Of course, the African experience of slavery and colonialism is complex, complicated and heterogeneous, but perhaps certain theoretical comparisons can be made in respect to nationalist processes. To borrow a quote from Yogita Goyal:

“Citing Molefi Asante’s The Afrocentric Idea (1987) in particular, Gilroy argues that such cultural nationalist discourses bypass the historical experience of slavery to arrive at a prehistoric mystical Africa frozen in time. In idealizing Africa as the motherland, such narratives remain captive to Eurocentric racism because they accept its assumptions of an essential division between Africa and the West. Further, in their desire for a glorious past, they prioritize an image of Africa as anterior to modernity, and so suppress or bypass the history of slavery because, in their view, Gilroy suggests,‘‘slavery is the site of black victimage and thus of tradition’s intended erasure’’ (p. 189). When Afrocentrists invoke the idea of tradition, they use it to assign Africa an authenticity “outside of the erratic flows of history’’. Their goal is primarily ‘‘therapeutic ‘’ and compensatory, as they seek to regenerate the‘‘integrity of the race’’ and ‘‘integrity of black masculinity,’’ defining the two interchangeably. Tradition thus names ‘‘a lost past’’ and a ‘‘culture of compensation that would re-store access to it’.”

I believe these processes also appear in post-colonial consciousness of some political groups in modern Pakistan. Moreover, Group A’s approach does not promote self-reflection, that is to say that it never applies the concept of cultural imperialism to its own actions, which more often than not, tend to be imperialist in themselves. Instead, it imagines cultural imperialism as a unique conspiracy against its own category. It believes that such imperialism can only be dispelled by achieving a precolonial state of cultural glory, which can only be accessed through lost customs and traditions. In other words, a state of Islamic imperialism. When this theory does not fit the society we live in, it tries to construct a society that fits the theory. So, its experiments with cultural cleansing begins, as it attempts to eliminate categories of ‘dissidents’ embodied in Christians, Shias and Ahmadis.

This is not to say that Western education is not ideological. As I have already pointed out, I believe the export of Western education is closely tied in with the promotion of values that respond to Western interests. The neoliberal economics postulated by the Chicago School and its involvement in disaster capitalism all over Latin America is perhaps the strongest evidence for the link between education and politics. My argument is that Group A’s stance does not resist the dominating aspects of Western education–it only competes with it by mimicking the rhetorical tropes of ‘modernity’. Support for the ideology of the nation-state, references to the sanctity of the constitution, or of state institutions that legitimize the exercise of power over those who oppose it, claiming legitimacy through popular mandate – these are the excuses and justifications borrowed from discourses related to ‘modernity’ but they are often employed in support of ‘traditional’ domination. As Fareed Paracha of Jamaat-e-Islami claims: “It [religious education] is just a way of demanding here in Pakistan that our curriculum, our system of education, should reflect our constitution…There is no need [for co-education], no demand, not even from our female side.”

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Cultural imperialism is not just a unique conspiracy, directed against the pan-Islamic world by pan-Western interests. In holding this point of view, one risks by-passing important reference points in history that complicate our identities. Culture is a natural front in the tussle for power between different ideologies and political interests. What the Punjabis do to the Pashtuns and Baloch is also cultural imperialism. The Bengali Language Riots were a product of cultural imperialism. We tend to garb the same concept in more euphemistic language when we ourselves are incriminated by its definition. We can distance ourselves from the implications of our theories–just as the Bush regime referred to torture as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, and we can refer to our own imperialist escapades as ‘cultural centralization for the purposes of national stability’–but it does not change the truth: In trying to defend itself against cultural imperialism, Group A has become its biggest propagator.

Moreover, a reversion to a mythic and romanticized culture of the past brings up its own issues because it cannot accommodate modern needs. It goes without saying that in today’s Pakistan there is a desperate need to construct a new culture that draws upon the past but addresses new ideas, new needs, new interests, new forms of oppression and new ways of resistance.

Similarly, for Group B, education is necessary because it sets them apart from the lowly muck of the country, sparing them the humiliation of powerlessness. Powerlessness here is not associated with an incapacity to change the status quo, but with a failure to adapt and excel within the status quo.

Though it indicts Hindus as having been servile and anti-revolutionary, the Pakistani elite has inherited the most anti-revolutionary aspect of the colonial experience. For our ruling classes, poverty and lack of influence is not perceived as a symptom of an oppressive system but is instead imagined as a personal flaw of the subject/individual, for which the system is punishing them.

Both these camps are part of the same power struggle. One wants to revert to historical power in an ‘authentic’, mythical past. This camp believes that retrieving our lost ‘cultural purity’ will lead us to a utopia, where humans, having submitted to the higher power of divine law, will live in a magical state of anti-power. The other can be compared to the insidious aristocrat prince in Il Gattopardo, who claims that for things to remain the same (for him to maintain his power in the face of a republican revolution), everything will have to change–that is to say, to maintain traditional power, we must take the appearance of modernity.

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A few years ago, with a flare of unprecedented inspiration, Murtaza’s school had introduced a course called ‘Comparative Religion’ atone of its branches. Pakistan’s ever so sensationalist right-wing media pounced at the opportunity to exploit the gullibility of concerned parents. TV presenter, Mubasher Lucman, accused the school of replacing a required Islamic studies course with a comparative religion class. This was not true. He claimed these schools were committing “a moral genocide” against the youth of his country. Parents protested that this sort of education would diminish the students’ understanding of Pakistan as a Muslim country. The principal of the school took to the Internet to offer a passionate defense of her decision:

“Our children live in a country where they wake up to discover that a young class fellow has been slain because s/he subscribes to one particular school of Islamic thought rather than another. More than ever, our children need to understand other faiths, if only so that they can better understand their own. They need to understand faith, period, so that they can protect it from the near-constant assault that it is under from those who would use it as a weapon of oppression. Please, do not deny them that opportunity.”

A few days later the government ordered a confiscation of all related materials and placed a ban on the course. Various religious groups issued threats. The school backed down. A year later, working as a teacher, I was approached by some tableeghis or missionaries and the school told me to retract my opinions and stick to an exam-based education.

However, as I grieve the loss of a student, I cannot help but regret the fact that us teachers, the educators, have demonstrated a chronic inability to guide our students by withdrawing our contribution to some of the most important debates of our times. Our cowardly surrender has spelled out the worst lesson for the students we claim to educate.

And what are we surrendering to? The idea that education should be limited to the Islamic purview? Whose Islamic purview? When the Prophet told his followers to seek knowledge even if it meant that they should go to China, was he talking about the acquisition of Islamic knowledge? China was untouched by Islam at the time! When he said “Let there be no compulsion in religion, truth stands out from error”, was he speaking in favor of identity politics, or was he insinuating that faith with doubt is optimism and faith without doubt is nihilism.

The point of studying comparative religion is similar to the the point of all education, namely to appreciate different points of view, go further than an axiomatic understanding of the world you inhabit, look at the world through the perspective of difference rather than identity. These are noble ideas and today, more than ever before, they demand our convictions.

According to Mubasher Lucman, encouraging diversity of thought and sentiment is “moral genocide”. He is woefully ignorant of history’s abiding lesson for us all: genocide is committed by those who are unable to appreciate the views and sentiments of other human beings. In other words: by people like him.

Lack of diversity affects inter-personal relationships as well. I do not know the details, but rumors suggest that a “girl’s honor” was the reason for which Murtaza took part in this fight. His family denies this claim, perhaps because it is a taboo to mention such things about those who have passed away.

I personally find ‘honor’ to be an excuse that boys often use to get into fights. A fight is often a primitive mating dance, a contest through which a girl is wooed. The more awkward you feel around this girl, the more vicious the fight will have to be.

Murtaza and I often spoke about whether co-education was better than same-sex schools. He, like many other teenagers, did not like being socially neglected and sought validation from his peers. Like most teenagers, he was made to feel guilty for the desires he was developing for the opposite gender–desires which tended to be innocent and benign when he spoke to me in confidence, and sleazy when he wanted to show off his social prowess in front of other boys.

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This is what I find peculiar about group psychology: in terms of personal experience, children reach certain moral conclusions that are very different from those conceptualized on a social level. Their private conclusions are never fully reconciled with the social theories their elders posit. They might respect a girl in private, but socially they are meant to repress sentimentality and adhere to sexist expectations, in which society supports them. This conflict is at the heart of their traumatic growth.

When we look at co-educational institutions, we see strange rules at play. Boys and girls cannot sit together, their friendships are frowned upon, and they are not permitted to fall in love. As if in love they are bound to lose respect for each other. Moreover, the teacher can not engage them in a meaningful discussion about sexism without disturbing the religious and cultural status quo that frames love outside marriage as an immoral perversion between two sleazy commitment-phobes. Paperwork is considered very romantic in our way of life.

Why is it unfathomable that two young people should be able to find respect for each other within the transient form of teenage love? And how can we be sure that our boys develop a healthy respect for the opposite sex if we do not instill it in them during those initial, formative phases where they experience the first bouts of unhinged passion? If we maintain a deafening silence over the question of love, in a way, we endorse hate. And, if that is the case, are we not turning them into extremists? The only difference between a prestigious private school, and a madrassah is that private schools are producing a different class of extremists.

Teaching, if you take it seriously, is an odd but character-building job. Most mornings, I enter a room full of 30-odd kids who have made it their life’s purpose to annihilate me. The impact of my contributions is never clear, because immediate validation is a rare miracle in my line of work. I rely solely on my faith in the future, hoping that one day these students will utilize my experiences and conclusions to enhance their own experiences. That, one day something will click in their minds; that one day they will embolden the collective experience of humanity. But with Murtaza’s heartless murder, I am left with one mind less, one world less. If we adhere to the mantra of ‘the children are our future’, then Murtaza’s death is an attack our collective faith in the future.

Be it Malala, the victims of the Peshawar massacre, or Murtaza: the only way to honor our students is by protecting our faith in their potential to co-exist in the midst of intellectual differences. If we wish to nurture this vision, we must pick up the pen, and stab the system that produces their assailants.

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Farhad Mirza isa writer, journalist and educator. He is a regular contributor to various publications in Pakistan, Europe and the Middle East.

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