Growing up in Pakistan, Islamic studies were a mandatory component of every school’s curriculum. Interestingly enough it always seemed like a peripheral subject with “core” subjects such as English, mathematics, science and Pakistan Studies, carrying much more weight and so having more extensive and detailed syllabi. The instructors were run of the mill and the textbooks lacked inspiration. While on the one hand this may not seem like a bad thing given Pakistan’s growing obsession with religion, on the other hand, perhaps we were done a disservice. The narrative in Pakistan today only seems to leave room for two extremes. There are the religion rejectionists blaming Islam for all the ills of society and state, and the religion glorifiers, so obsessed with its overt practice that the spirit of the Word is forgotten. Both have risen as a reaction to each other, as each party clings to its own beliefs and alienates the other. In the process, not only is there a dearth of well-balanced, dare I say it “moderate” voices, but also little space left for the expression of said moderation. Their voices are almost always drowned out amongst fatwas and “liberal” critiques.

I believe it is necessary to come to terms with the fact that we live in a country that specifically calls itself an Islamic republic and was supposedly created in the name of religion. Islam is important to the majority of Pakistan. This is a fact. Whether this was always the case, or whether it happened post-Zia or post-Bhutto or post- Musharraf is immaterial now. The point is that while the average Mullah and groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have caught on to this and are using it to their benefit, the privileged, educated lot are twiddling their thumbs. The time for quaint candle light vigils has passed. The ideological space conveniently handed over to the likes of the Taliban has to be taken back.

I recently heard a disturbing, albeit slightly old story about one of Pakistan’s most prestigious educational institutions known for the progressive and liberal environment it espouses. It boasts a faculty that is picked from amongst the best of the nation’s minds. It started with the hiring of a foreign educated, charismatic professor of Islamic Law, who, apart from attending some of the best universities in the West also spent some years at a madrassa in Lahore. Unbeknown to the school administration, this professor was holding Islamic lectures for students after school hours on school property. In the process he managed to amass a large following amongst the students who formed a religious police on campus. Eventually, the professor was fired but the damage had been done.While the accounts that I have heard may be exaggerated, the fact that he was hired in the first place is what is truly shocking. How are we so blasé about whom our children are exposed to? Just because he had a degree from an ivy league and spoke with a mesmerizing foreign accent, his time spent at the madrassa was ignored and he was considered fit to expose to some of the country’s brightest minds. The problem is that when we come across such people, we are decidedly outside of our comfort zones. When they start spouting verses from the Quran or referencing various Hadith or Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH), we are essentially rendered mute. That needs to change.

Pakistan is at war. We have the TTP, the Uzbeks and all varieties of militant Islamic groups at our doorstep, wreaking havoc in our country and hell bent on taking over and establishing what they mistakenly believe is a proper Islamic society. We have seen examples of this kind of a society in Afghanistan under the Taliban and we are seeing it now in parts of Iraq as well. If we don’t want Pakistan to suffer the same fate, then not only do we have to take back the physical space they occupy, but we must also take control of their ideological space. We must engage with Islam and not reject it. Instead of learning a Saudi Wahabi inspired brand of Islam, our children should be learning about the Ali Hajveri’s of the subcontinent. They should be learning about the countless scientists, philosophers, inventors and political strategists the Islamic world has produced. Why is it that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is included in a depiction of the greatest lawgivers in history on the walls of Lincoln’s Inn? Why don’t we teach our children these aspects of Islam’s greatest personality? If there are a handful of hadiths or verses on physical jihad, there are scores more on the importance of tolerance, patience, kindness, generosity, and jihad of the mind and soul. If Islamic history is replete with battles, as is the case with the history of most peoples and religions, it is also full of examples of tolerance and coexistence, of Christian’s protecting Muslims and Muslim’s coexisting peacefully with people of different cultures and religions. Anything the likes of the Taliban have to say, a counter narrative is available from amongst the very books and the people that they supposedly cherish. We have to and can prove them wrong.

Furthermore, the media needs to stop giving airtime to people spewing hatred and bigotry in the name of Islam and otherwise. We are all so scared that we will suffer the same fate as Salmaan Taseer or Shahbaz Bhatti if we speak up, but if we don’t, we are headed towards that fate anyway. We must purge the way we think of Islam and once we have achieved that, we can move towards separating it from the political realm, as in Turkey, so that it is free from the manipulation and debasement it has suffered over the years. Islam may seem like the problem to many of us right now, but it may very well be a part of the solution.

The writer is a freelance columnist.