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Campus takeover

Pakistan's fundamentalists are on the rise -- even at its top university

LAHORE--On a sunny day at Camp David in June, President George W. Bush hailed Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, as "a courageous leader" who is "working to build a modern Pakistan that is tolerant and prosperous." On his foreign trips, Musharraf proudly touts the progress in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the spread of press freedoms under his watch.

But for all the applause from Western leaders, Musharraf's Pakistan is a nation in deep trouble. Since the surprisingly strong showing of a coalition of six radical Islamic parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), in national elections last October, Pakistan's religious right has become increasingly assertive. In the frontier province bordering Afghanistan, the MMA-led government recently voted to impose Islamic law and is considering establishing a morality police modeled on the Taliban's Ministry for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. Across the country, the war in Iraq has only heightened the sense among many Pakistanis that the United States is waging a war on Islam -- with the aid of their president and army.

While academics and journalists admit that life is freer under Musharraf, they refuse to forget that his is still a military regime. "A free press in the absence of an independent judiciary and a parliament is meaningless to me," says M Ziauddin, the Pakistani president of the South Asia Free Media Association. "This is a totally untenable system: an elected government led by a military dictator, and the opposition led by the clergy."

Furthermore, many believe the MMA could not have risen to power without the help of Musharraf, who created a vacuum for the religious parties by banning his two mainstream political rivals. "We have always maintained that the reins of the mullah lie in the hands of army general headquarters," says Asma Jehangir, Pakistan's best-known human rights lawyer and activist, who has repeatedly been sentenced to death by Islamist mullahs.

The creeping "Talibanization" of Pakistan is evident even in its much-vaunted public universities. Sprawling across the cultural capital of Lahore, the state-run Punjab University is Pakistan's largest and oldest university, founded in 1882. Its 12,000 students are drawn from across economic and geographic backgrounds, thanks to fees that run at about $150 per year. But the university's academic reputation has been dulled by fundamentalism in the city that is also the home of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest party in the MMA alliance.

Hang around the campus a little while and you'll notice that the colorful clusters of students strolling between buildings are either all women or all men. Pressure from Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing forced the university to adopt a separate-seating policy for men and women in classrooms, in the cafeteria, in the library, and on university buses.

The Islamia Jamiat Taleba, the students' Islamic organization, can be found in a grimy student union office hung with posters that read, rather awkwardly, "Quran and Sunnah" -- the Word and the Way of the Prophet -- "is only that we demand to rule upon our land." On a recent day, Allahbaksh Leghari, a 27-year-old Jamiat leader, folded his hands and patiently explained that Jamiat's role is to "educate students about Islamic ways" to create "the ideal moral environment."

. . .

Many Pakistani academics believe Jamiat does more than that. They say the group controls the university according to its version of conservative Islam, with the collusion of the retired military officers who administer the institution. Departments and student groups must request permission from Jamiat to hold a function. Dance and life-drawing classes are forbidden. When a couple were discovered holding hands on campus several months ago, students beat them with wooden clubs. Since the MMA gained political power, student Islamists have been known to rove the streets of Pakistan's cities at night, smearing black paint on billboards showing women's faces.

Professors in Punjab's English Literature department got a rude shock this past spring when they discovered that a junior member of the department had apparently been recruited by the university administration to "purge" the syllabus of "vulgar, obscene, and morally corrupt" elements. An internal memo circulated by the lecturer in question, Shahbaz Arif, singled out Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock," noting that "the title of the book itself shows vulgarity," and Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" for its description of a "monstrous breast." Of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," he noted, "All characters sexually astray: men homosexuals; females lesbians/promiscuous; Brett Ashley nymphomaniac and so on." Sean O'Casey's play "The End of the Beginning" was selected for the sentence, "When the song ended, Darry cocks his ear and listens." Arif had underlined the word "cocks."

Arif's colleagues were not amused. "The administration would like to filter information the students get," worries assistant English professor Zareena Saeed. "But if you are not going to allow students to understand other cultures, then you are going to produce a rigid generation." Muhammed Hafeez, head of the sociology department, agrees. "Most people are not going to change their sexual behavior because they read Pope or Donne, certainly not when we have satellite TV beaming into our bedrooms."

Fellow academics suggest the English department has been targeted because department chair Shaista Sonnu Sirajuddin is an outspoken progressive. Among the last remnants of the university's secular and elite left, she runs her department without religious influence, refuses to cover her head, and even sometimes wears a sari (the Indian national dress). But retired army colonel Masood ul-Haq, the university registrar, insists the issue has been blown out of proportion. "No change will be made to the syllabus. We are good Muslims here -- but the university is an entirely independent academic environment." He says Arif has temporarily been moved to another department because of internal matters.

But Arif's memo was hardly an isolated incident. Several weeks earlier, the administration arranged for the English department to meet with the wife of a high-ranking former army officer. She came armed with her own list of works on the syllabus she found offensive -- because, she said, they promoted Jews, favored Indians, or were written by lesbians -- and she informed the department it was "high time we became less tolerant." Across campus, history professors complain that "most of our textbooks were written by Islamists," as department veteran Kamar Abbas puts it. "History in Pakistan always comes down to religion and anti-Hindu feelings."

In fact, the university has been controlled by Islamists since the time of dictator General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who forcefully "Islamized" the country until his death in a mysterious 1988 plane crash. Pakistan's two dozen or so private colleges, mostly funded by profit-seeking companies, are able to offer more academic freedom than Punjab University, but fear and self-censorship infiltrate intellectual life pretty much everywhere in Pakistan.

. . .

Journalism professor Mehdi Hassan spent his 32-year tenure at Punjab University trying to undo that legacy. Because his Marxist, anti-fundamentalist views were not popular with the religious right, Hassan says, he was twice accused of blasphemy and dismissed from the staff.

That's a charge familiar to Pakistani journalists, who live in fear of the country's stringent blasphemy law, which is punishable by death. After Musharraf's military coup in 1999, he promised he would reform the law as part of his campaign to rid Pakistan of Islamic extremism. But when he was advised not to incur the wrath of the extremist forces by doing so, he retreated from that position.

Meanwhile, journalists and academics continue to censor their work in the name of national interest and Islam. And international media watchdogs say that new laws regarding defamation, freedom of information, and the establishment of a watchdog Press Council proposed by Musharraf's government actually curb journalistic freedoms and public access to information.

Still, there are those who see some hopeful signs. Across town from Punjab University, Salima Hashmi has been flooded with applications for a new private school of visual arts. Hashmi is the daughter of the radical Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was accused of conspiring against the state and thrown in jail in 1951. She herself spent years teaching at Pakistan's premier fine-arts college, the National College of Art, where in the `80s her life-drawingclasses were attacked by Islamists.

Hashmi waves off the doomsday predictions of the Talibanization of Pakistan. "Those were really bad times," she laughs. "This is a piece of cake right now."

Miranda Kennedy is a writer and radio journalist based in New Delhi.

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