5 September 2011: A gathering with students last Thursday at Edwardes College featured an especially interesting question posed by a student: “As you come in as the new principal of Edwardes College, what is your thinking about the environment here in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where you are working?” I launched into the three topics that immediately came to mind: Islam, women, and militancy in this frontier area. What follows is not a verbatim of what I said extemporaneously but my recollection of the gist:
Islam: Having grown up in India, where the largest religious minority is Muslim, well over 100 million today, I am not a stranger to Islam. The research specialty of my mother was Islam, and she studied Urdu and was able to read and write Arabic script. Moreover, I am named partly after a missionary scholar, Murray Titus, whose book, Islam in India, was published by Oxford in 1931, and his post-Partition revision, Islam in India and Pakistan, was published in 1959.
Nevertheless, my major inter-religious encounters in India were with Hindus, who are the overwhelming majority, and Hinduism was the research specialty of my father. In my own work as a missionary and scholar, I’ve interacted with and conducted in-depth research in African traditional religions, African Christianity and Indian Christianity. Obviously, living and working in environments of difference is not new to me. In fact, I’m a frontier person who thrives in environments of difference, for there I learn more about others, about myself, and about God.
Living and working in a primarily Muslim environment, though, is new to me – and important, for it’s clear that inter-religious relations, especially between Islam and Christianity, are a major agenda for the world in the 21st century. I’ve been struck by how Edwardes College, itself a church institution, is a mostly Muslim environment, so that most of you students are Muslim, as are the majority of my faculty colleagues. At the same time, this is an inter-religious environment which has about 200 Christian students and some Christian faculty, so it is a place of Christian witness as well, with opportunities for inter-religious understanding and action, which include the Hindus and Sikhs who are also here. I feel very centered in these realities. I’m looking forward to learning more about Islam, especially in this religiously conservative province, and that will happen through both personal encounters and reading. Meanwhile, I experience the call to prayer from the mosque as a call that reinforces Christ’s call to prayer.
Women: An obvious cultural difference between my home and the setting of Pakistan, especially in this province, is the relative separation between Muslim men and women and the varying degrees to which women are physically covered – from a head scarf, to partial face covering, to fullscale burqa. As someone new to this setting, I need to restrain my natural instinct to shake the hands of women as well as men.
[I didn’t mention this in my remarks, but Zimbabweans, men and women alike, typically shake hands at every social encounter and make a point of shaking the hand of every person upon entering a room, even if there are, say, 30 people present. As a result of my Shona socialization, I actually became much more of a hand-shaker than most of my colleagues at home – which people sometimes have noted!]
All this makes for interesting questions in light of Edwardes College’s pioneering efforts in coeducation. There are now 305 women students among the approximately 2,000 students of the morning session, and I know that for many of you this kind of environment is new and sometimes uncomfortable. I’ve heard that many families in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are reluctant to send daughters to such a setting, which presents a challenge to our admissions process. And yet women are increasing in the professions in Pakistan, whether in medicine or other fields, and in the civil service – and, of course, Pakistan has had a woman president. So getting used to mixed-gender situations seems to be important for the future in Pakistan. What may be needed here at Edwardes is more conversation about how to approach this and what the aims of the college are in promoting such an environment.
Militancy: I arrived in Peshawar and at Edwardes early this past Sunday, May 1, and later that same day the US forces were on their way to Abbottabad for the raid that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden right here in this province. Well, of course, that has been the number one item in world news, and many aspects of the affair have been very controversial both within Pakistan and between Pakistan and various western countries.
One encouraging footnote to this, by the way, is that you have a very free press in your country – and I speak as someone who used to be a newspaper reporter and editor. After my visit here in January, my wife Jane and I visited the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where I noticed that Pakistan was rated very low journalistically on account of the number of journalists who are killed annually and the (alleged) degree of governmental control of newspapers, radio and TV. Many journalists have indeed been killed here – a Geo reporter was killed during my visit in January. But it is clear to me that the Newseum is wrong about basic press freedom, for journalists have what appears to me to be total freedom of expression. The range of opinion expressed in newspapers and on the airwaves, including criticism of all levels of government, is similar to what is found in, for instance, India and most western countries.
Back on the topic of militancy – which I believe is a more helpful term than terrorism – I highlight one observation from the article that President Zardari published both here in Pakistan and in the Washington Post soon after the Abbottabad raid. He emphasized rightly that Pakistan has suffered more from Al Qaeda’s campaign than any other country, with something like 30,000 civilians and 5,000 soldiers and police killed in the last decade, and many more injured. As a consequence, he said, an entire generation, especially in this frontier region, has missed out on development, by which he meant education, healthcare, sanitation and other types of infrastructure improvement.
All that is true – and it is directly relevant to you as students here at Edwardes College. You are coming of age and undertaking higher education not at some miscellaneous time like any other in the life of your country. No, you are being educated at one of the most difficult times in the history of Pakistan. Your country needs you. Pakistan and especially Khyber Pakhtunkhwa need your gifts, your skills and your commitment to build up the life of this country in this hour of need.
– Titus Presler, Principal