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Religious Education and the Politics of Pluralism in Pakistan

A presentation by Wilson Center Fellow Matthew J. Nelson on the level of Pakistani tolerance for diversity within Islam.

Date & Time

May. 25, 2011
4:00pm – 5:30pm

Religious Education and the Politics of Pluralism in Pakistan

How do pluralism-friendly ideas take shape in Pakistan in the context of modern Islamic education? This question formed the crux of a presentation delivered by Wilson Center Fellow Matthew J. Nelson at a May 25 Asia Program event. Nelson’s remarks revolved around two core themes: where Pakistani students do their schooling, and what Pakistanis think about diversity in Islam—that is, the level of tolerance they have for doctrinal or sectarian difference within the religion.

Nelson began by contesting some of the recent literature about religious education in Pakistan. He referenced a widely cited World Bank study from 2006, which argues that full-time residential enrollments in Pakistani madrassas are relatively uncommon. This finding is “misleading,” according to Nelson, because it only considers data on full-time residential enrollments. While few Pakistani children are residential madrassa students, a large majority—more than 70 percent—attend these religious schools on a part-time, non-residential basis. This is because many Pakistanis have their children attend both madrassas and either public or non-elite private schools. Separately, a tiny proportion of Pakistani students—less than 1 percent, according to Nelson’s data—enrolls full-time in private, “super-elite” schools.

Given that so many Pakistani students are enrolled in different types of educational institutions simultaneously, explained Nelson, the question of “who thinks what” about the doctrinal diversity that exists among Muslims cannot be traced to the influence of isolated institutional enrollments. Instead, the answer must be based on the ways in which individuals combine different educational influences for themselves. His presentation highlighted the results of recent surveys he conducted about pluralism within Islam in Pakistan. This fieldwork, undertaken in partnership with the Gallup organization, consists of interviews with about 500 people—across all four provinces, and among rich, poor, urban, and rural Pakistanis alike.

A major conclusion emerging from this research is that very few Pakistanis—less than 7 percent—embrace the value of diversity within Islam. Most respondents reject outright the notion of difference. A common survey response argues that “when people are exactly the same, ‘equality’ is greatly enhanced.” Supporters of this viewpoint, for instance, prefer that all Muslims say their prayers in the same way. This “denial of difference,” Nelson emphasized, is not tied to common demographic indicators, such as socioeconomic status. In fact, he said, his data reveal that as wealth rises, people are somewhat less likely to support diversity.

The 6.8 percent of respondents who embrace a “pluralism-friendly” approach to Islam often point to the notion that “difference represents a gateway to progress and development. These Pakistanis, explained Nelson, contend that the “golden age of Islam” has been, and always will be, an age of diversity and debate. This small pluralism-friendly cohort of Pakistani society has remained remarkably constant, even with the rash of sectarian strife and other religious-based violence convulsing Pakistan in recent years. As with the larger group that denies difference, demographic indicators do not play a major explanatory role. This 6.8 percent minority is not skewed in favor of any particular socioeconomic status or sect. Nelson acknowledged that there are some correlations with education levels. Still, the explanatory power of this indicator is weak: among those with a university education, only slightly more than 10 percent embrace the differences within Islam. Social scientists should “relax” their attachment to demographic predictors, Nelson asserted, and instead focus more on Pakistanis as individuals who think for themselves.

By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program



Matthew J. Nelson

Lecturer, Department of Politics, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, United Kingdom
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more


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