Can negotiated education save Pakistan?

By William L. Sachs and Buck Blanchard
Posted Feb 26, 2013

[Richmond Times-Dispatch] Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Feb. 24 in the Commentary section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

On a bright winter afternoon a few students gather in the college theater to rehearse an upcoming performance. They will offer Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to the campus and the public. Several scenes require polish. A young man and young woman begin the dialogue between Portia and Brutus hesitantly. Finding confidence, they recite historic lines energetically. Other students and the faculty advisers applaud as they conclude.

It is a classic college scene, the theater situated beside a lawn boxed by other facilities. Inside and out, students rush between classes and activities. There is warm chatter and frequent laughter. Strikingly, they wear green blazers and white shirts, many sporting ties with the college crest. Apart from required attire, this could be an American campus. Indeed most conversation, like class instruction, is in English.

But this is not North America or Europe. Edwardes College sits in the heart of Peshawar, Pakistan, the city of 3 million that is the epicenter of terrorism. Kabul, Afghanistan, is 140 miles to the west; in between is intensely contested terrain.

Close by, in the city of Mardan, the burned ruins of a church recall mobs that protested a video insulting the Prophet Muhammad in September. Farther to the northeast, 100 miles away, there is Abbottabad, where American Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Peshawar is the center of terror and the war on it.

Violence is a constant reality. On Dec. 17, militants brazenly launched a multi-phase attack on Peshawar’s international airport that was repulsed by government forces. Since then there have been various attacks on individuals and shootouts with police in the city.

Students commuting to campus pass through multiple checkpoints featuring roadblocks with sandbagged machine gun posts. At campus gates, armed guards check identities and patrol the surrounding walls. Edwardes sits in the midst of ongoing threat.

Yet on campus, life seems disconnected from the realities around it. The legacy of the past is vivid. Founded in 1900 by British missionaries, the college continues as one of the educational and medical institutions of the Church of Pakistan.

The colonial past is gone, but the original intention of offering higher education to society persists. Overwhelmingly, faculty and students are Muslim, a reminder that Pakistan has a huge Islamic majority. The college has smaller numbers of Christians, Sikhs and Hindus.

Edwardes says its mission is to “educate and develop professionals who will be servant leaders” for Pakistan, a focus that has earned widespread acclaim. Visitors sense the pride of being “Edwardian.” Plaques and framed photos attest to the legacy. Students and faculty smile as they describe Edwardes. It seems wondrously unreal. For what could they possibly hope, with chaos on their doorstep?

Nevertheless, Edwardes styles itself as an alternative to violence. Hints quickly surface. One faculty member, a Muslim woman, says her intention is to “inculcate empathy” in students. A faculty member advising the Shakespeare rehearsal emphasizes that theater helps students to “build confidence and develop self-expression.” He doesn’t need to cite the nearby Taliban’s condemnation of drama and dance. The contrast is stark.

The contrast also is pervasive. Another faculty member, a Muslim, leads his class in a discussion of “gender equality” in the college’s “Integrity Project,” periodic discussion of current issues. The emphasis on discussion, and not rote learning, is striking. Phrases like “tolerance for diversity” and “mutual appreciation” surface as the faculty member draws out students. Values are formed by guided interaction. The contrast with life outside campus becomes more striking.

Religious and cultural difference is presumed; but respect for difference, and other humanitarian values are emphasized. Many students pursue the sciences, especially pre-medical studies, and they cite the values that are encouraged. So too in the liberal arts: Students speak of career hopes framed by ideals Edwardes has fostered.

They sense they are being groomed to create a better future, and carry a profound responsibility. “We must defeat terrorism,” one student says soberly. Can education undermine militancy? Can students not only acquire academic skills but values that promote cooperation and defeat violence? Edwardes College invests in this hope.

It is not alone: other schools affiliated with the Church of Pakistan’s Diocese of Peshawar echo this intention. The nearby Edwardes College School collects students into clusters where team spirit and cooperation are promoted. At a church-run primary school, some children practice “Romeo and Juliet,” while others rehearse cultural dances. The arts are integrated into studies.

Nor is this emphasis confined to Peshawar. The church-affiliated school at Bannu in nearby Waziristan also grounds education in shared values and respectful cooperation. Similar church-run medical facilities treat all who come. Compassion is a striking emphasis given tensions and outbreaks of religious violence. While militancy flares, Pakistan’s army makes aggressive sweeps and American drones patrol, the hope of a reconciled future endures.

To achieve such a future, delicate interfaith and cross-cultural negotiations are required, as life at Edwardes reveals. At campus events, for example, should the Quran or the Bible be read first? Respect for cultural patterns is presumed. A small section of the campus is reserved for women. Men and women often sit in segregated clusters. Edwardes does not promote wholesale change.

Education promotes cooperation in the midst of difference. One evening, Edwardes hosts the Faith Friends, a gathering of religious leaders from all faiths, including leading Muslims. Their conversation reflects what Edwardes values. It embodies hospitality and common purpose. The conversation is substantive and warm. For an evening, much seems possible in Peshawar.

Can people be educated away from animosity and suspicion? The hunger for what Edwardes College and related schools offer is great: There are more applications each year than places in the classes. The eagerness of many people for a better future is palpable. But longing is insufficient. Militant groups make this a fragile place. Edwardes can only educate a few. How can that have broad impact?

In “Pakistan: A Hard Country,” Anatol Lieven depicts a nation in danger of disintegration. Riven by class, clan and faith fault lines, Pakistan must be a “negotiated state.” It only works to the extent that cooperation can emerge amid the social sources of conflict. The strength and variety of particular identities combine with weak government to make a brittle situation.

Shakespeare and the Integrity Project and medical care and even Faith Friends may seem like straws in Pakistan’s violent winds. Many continuing examples could justify cynicism. But behind the headlines a dedicated and diverse group of people foster an alternative, in the face of terror. They and their commitment are sorely needed, in Pakistan and in the United States.

— William L. Sachs is director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. Contact him at Buck Blanchard is director of Mission and Outreach for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. From Jan. 15 to 22, they visited Peshawar to explore links between the church there and schools and churches in Virginia.