Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, a Pakistan-based jurist serving as Supreme Court judge, issued a powerful and debate-provoking judgment on 04 January 2022. He pointed out the significance of academic freedom for the evolution and protection of democracy. In his usual professorial style, he declared that “we cannot have genuine democracy unless the higher education and research community is able to inquire freely.” He also highlighted the importance of free thinkers in a society who play their role in the creation of a democratic culture:
“Universities are the playgrounds of democracy and the more freedom and independence they enjoy, the more free thinkers and leaders they will produce,” he wrote.
This is an important and much-needed judgment by the country’s highest court and needs careful understanding.
Academic freedom is suppressed in Pakistan generally in two organised ways. First, academics who do not subscribe to the prevalent idea of ‘order’ and ‘democracy’ are intentionally marginalised by the state. Second, all ‘free’ academics are expected and encouraged to defend the official discourse on any politically significant issue. Those who do not agree with the official narrative are either respectfully ‘overlooked’ or politely told, by their colleagues on the behest of the state, to mend their ways.
In sum, academic freedom is reduced to an unfortunate political level where one is free as far as a) the state narrative is not challenged and b) criticism of some procedural matters is done in a way that does not cross the red line. The very logic of a policy, ideology or action cannot be questioned. Only procedural matters can be discussed and debated in the public domain. Such a narrow and politically restricted idea of freedom obscures the very logic of freedom itself. A politically compromised scholar is never an independent academic. And controlled inquiry is no inquiry. It is a clerical job to defend and validate political truths.
Freedom means freedom to think differently and to do a different politics. Almost a hundred years ago, Rosa Luxemburg, a prominent 20th-century Marxist scholar and activist, lectured Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky on freedom when these two Marxists were compromising on the essence of freedom for a greater good. “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently,” Luxemburg wrote in 1918.
The state’s insistence on acquiring a unified response from academics should be deeply upsetting. Conformity, particularly in intellectual spheres, kills creativity and eventually leads to dangerous stagnation. Civilisations do not die because of external aggression, but chiefly because of their inability to remain dynamic and creative. It is only innovation and creativity that provide fresh air to a community. Justice Shah is right that “universities are the playgrounds of democracy” but we need to understand that if those ideas that take birth at campuses are not incorporated into the society at large, they are of little use. Arguments for the sake of arguments are a futile activity. It is the interaction between the campus and the society that ensures freedom for the former and progress for the latter. Unfortunately, it does not exist in Pakistan. Here are two recent examples.
There were approximately 3, 900 Muslim scholars who lived between the 8th and mid-11th centuries, and only (8.5%) worked as state servants
Dr. Ammar Ali Jan, an academic and activist, was forced out of his job in June 2020. He was told by the university officials to stay silent otherwise the campus would not be able to keep him. In November 2020, the administration issued preventive detention order to maintain public order. Notably, Dr. Jan is known for his activism against human rights violations in Pakistan. He is widely respected as a young scholar and activist amongst international human rights groups and civil society. At home, unfortunately, he is seen as a threat to the public order.
Similarly, in 2013, Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at the Bahauddin Zakariya University, was accused of blasphemy on Facebook in 2013. He has been given a death sentence. It is important to note that since 1990 in Pakistan, more than 75 people have been killed in connection with blasphemy accusations.
These two examples are an indication of how academics and free thinkers can be deemed a threat to the public order or end up getting death sentences for allegedly hurting the religious sensibilities of those who have a monopoly over political and cultural discourse in the country. These two cases also lead us to another set of questions: why should academics work independently? What is wrong if academics become allies or servants of the state? Is it not scholars’ responsibility to protect and defend their governments i.e. state?
An answer from the Western intellectual tradition may be too obvious: that scholars must always be free, independent, and objective in their pursuit of reality. The state’s service shall make them handicapped and their inquiry shall no longer be objective and transparent. Free inquiry is the hallmark of a free society. Hence, scholars and public intellectuals must always be independent.
However, any answer in the same terms and tone from the Muslim intellectual history should sound striking. There is a general perception that thinkers or Ulema always were state servants and defended the rulers. In the section below, I specifically look into this question: “Were early Muslim thinkers state servants?”
There were approximately 3, 900 Muslim scholars who lived between the 8th and mid-11th centuries, and only (8.5%) worked as state servants. In a well-written report for the Religious Freedom Institute, Prof. Ahmet T. Kuru talks about the role of early Muslim thinkers in establishing academic freedom. All four founders—Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Shafii, and Ibn Hanbal—of the main Sunni schools of jurisprudence, did not become state servants despite rulers’ insistence. They sacrificed their lives but did not compromise on principles; refused to become state servants and faced atrocities. Kuru writes “for their dissenting views, Abu Hanifa was killed in prison, Malik was whipped, Shafii was detained and chained, and Ibn Hanbal was beaten in prison.” These early Muslim thinkers knew—even centuries before the Enlightenment—that service to the state means a compromise on free inquiry.
Kuru also notes a major change in political circumstances: the emergence of Shi’i military forces in various parts of the Muslim world, that forced Abbasid caliphs to call for a “Sunni creed.” This external threat (perceived or otherwise) led to the unification of Sunni orthodoxy and what Kuru terms the Ulema-state alliance in the Muslim world which is, in his view, one of the main causes behind underdevelopment and authoritarianism in contemporary Muslim majority countries.
In contemporary Pakistan, an external enemy has always been an undefined (yet constant) element of our ideological, political, and cultural imagination. Who is that external enemy? It can be India, Israel, America, or combined anti-Islam forces from across the globe. It should not be critically evaluated, we are told, but rather taken as a priori knowledge. This serves the Pakistani political elite the way the threat of rising Shi’i military forces served the Abbasid caliphs; consolidation of Sunni orthodoxy and power with the help of scholars.
A dispassionate analysis of the current politically charged circumstances suggests that there is not much the courts can do to liberate academia. Courts have a limited role to play in generating intellectual discourse and urging individuals for organised movements. Academics have to understand that it is not their moral responsibility to defend the state policies, rather their task is even bigger: that is, to contribute to the welfare of humanity. Scholarship cannot—and should not—be confined to the good of a people residing in a territory. Pakistani academics can only get liberated from self-inflicted moral responsibility and politically imposed restrictions if they decide to approach the objective of their work from a broader perspective.
For an academic, a narrowly defined nationalistic perspective imprisons human imagination and proves to be counterproductive when it comes to creating a democratic society.