The Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) is organizing speech contests in various cities of Pakistan in which madrassa students are invited to speak on such topics as sectarian harmony, women’s education, democracy, and the importance of polio vaccination. The speakers include students from Barelvi, and even Shia, seminaries.
I attended one such contest on January 17, at Maaz bin Jabal, a Deobandi seminary in an affluent locality in Islamabad. I was surprised to see a madrassa student speaking in favor of democracy. The series of events – a brainchild of Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, the chairman of the PUC – is a good effort to dispel the popular perception that seminary students are brainwashed and taught to hate the followers of other sects.
Once a member of Sipah-e-Sahaba, Tahir Ashrafi is now an ardent proponent of sectarian harmony and peace, and uses the PUC platform for that purpose. It was his idea to train madrassa students on sensitive issues that had never been discussed in seminaries before, and can help promote religious harmony.
[quote]I was surprised to see a madrassa student speaking in favor of democracy[/quote]
Ashrafi said he had been working on the idea for several years, and began implementing it in his own seminaries. He believes changing the mindset of madrassa students is an effective way of creating sectarian tolerance. “Students of religious seminaries should also be engaged in positive extra-curricular activities and sports,” he said, adding that they should play cricket matches with students of model schools in Islamabad. “They should be taught things that are taught in mainstream educational institutions.”
And he is right. If madrassa students will not acquire contemporary skills and knowledge, they will continue to be treated as outsiders by the mainstream society, and some of them will continue to be exploited by extremists and terrorists.
A speech contest will not promote tolerance, respect towards other faiths and opinion would.