Pakistan: July/Aug ‘09

Religious leaders and madrassa students in Pakistan keen to embrace the media.

Pakistan: July/Aug ‘09

Religious leaders and madrassa students in Pakistan keen to embrace the media.

Thursday, 17 September, 2009

Islamic religious leaders in Pakistan have been speaking about the importance of the media while conservative youth have expressed a desire to get their points of view across, as part of IWPR’s new schools journalism project Open Minds Pakistan.

Open Minds, which trains secondary school-age students in journalism skills, works in several madrassas (religious schools) in conservative Islamic areas. Madrassas are usually thought of as hostile to outside intervention, but recent outspoken support from religious teachers in some of the project’s madrassas shows that many conservative Muslims in Pakistan are eager to engage with the media.

“A maulana (religious teacher) called Mazahar Sahib delivered a detailed and comprehensive lecture [to students] on the role and importance of media,” said Sudhir Ahmad Afridi, one of the project’s trainers who teaches at the Madrassa Darul Quran Namak Mandi in Pakistan’s north-western city of Peshawar. “He urged the students to be enthusiastic in learning about the media and good reporting.”

Sudhir, a professional journalist like all Open Minds trainers, said he is using examples from the Quran and the life of the prophet Muhammad to help students understand basic journalistic principles.

“For example, someone once asked the prophet while he was riding a horse how many legs did his horse have. The prophet Muhammad did not respond from the top of the horse as he was on its back, but came down and counted the legs and then said that his horse had four legs. This is a lesson that every journalist should speak or write only after getting accurate facts rather than false stories or hearsay,” Sudhir said.

Sudhir told IWPR that the leaders of madrassas and other Islamic teachers feel the need for contemporary subjects like social and natural sciences, including journalism. Most madrassas only teach religious subjects including Quran study and Islamic law, and students are not exposed to social or communication studies.

Many madrassas in Pakistan, however, are trying to modernise as a way to counteract international perceptions that they are educationally ineffective and breeding grounds for extremism.

And Madrassa students are keen to learn about the media. Shahab ur-Rahaman, who teaches at Madrassa Tajveedul Quran in Peshawar, told IWPR of some perceptive questions asked during his classes.

“One of the students, Abdul Halim, pointed out that a lot of resources are required for mass media while Pakistan is a poor country. Therefore he asked if it is possible for the media to survive in Pakistan,” Shahab said.

Pakistan has only one state broadcaster, but dozens of private TV channels, newspapers and radio stations. Growth in satellite TV has been especially rapid over the last ten years because of relaxed licensing laws.

Another of Shahab’s students, Masoor Iqbal, said that he felt the Pakistani media “is not highlighting incidents happening in India, [whereas] the Indian media focuses on every issue related to Pakistan”.

As well as the media, students are learning about international current affairs through the project’s in-school discussion clubs. Several schools and madrassas in the southern city of Karachi held sessions during July on “Human Rights in Islam”, each of which was attended by about 70 students.

In the project’s five schools in the province of Swat, discussion clubs are just beginning on the history of human rights. Human rights violations were frequent in the district during Taleban rule, and continued amid the recent fighting between insurgents and the Pakistan army.

The project has also revealed that while international audiences often regard young people in conservative areas of Pakistan as potential terrorists, many are keen to learn how they can change this perception through journalism.

Ghias Akram, who trains students in two government high schools in the north-western district of Charsadda, even reports that many of his students have become interested in studying for a master’s degree in journalism once they leave school.

Ghias told IWPR that students have very little access to media in many areas of Pakistan, so they do not realise that they can use journalism to counteract common misconceptions about themselves.

This is particularly the case in madrassas with their limited syllabus, Ghias said.

“Madrassa students are able, but need … to learn about other subjects that are not taught at madrassas,” Sudhir said.

Ella Rolfe is IWPR's Open Minds programme consultant.

Pakistan: Open Minds
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