Uproar over a booth showcasing Israeli culture as part of a university Model United Nations event in Pakistan has prompted the country's higher education authority to warn universities not to challenge “the perspective of the government.”
The stall appeared at a three-day Women's International Model United Nations event in Islamabad, which began on 24 October and was organized by faculty of Management Sciences at the International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI). Model United Nations are held around the world and feature committee sessions and debates similar to those of the United Nations, as well as social events like the Global Village, during which participants highlight the culture of the countries they represent. These exercises contribute to students’ knowledge about other people countries, and cultures.
But the photos of the Israel stall at the event, which began to circulate last week, hit a nerve with many. The Pakistani state does not recognize Israel as a country, and the majority of Pakistanis have a mainly negative view of Israel — 60 percent, according to the latest BBC Global Poll. Outraged, many recorded their protest of the booth online and offline.
The protest that gained the most spotlight was the IIUI chapter of right-wing student organization IJT (Islami Jamiat e Tulba). IJT staged a demonstration in front of the National Press Club on 26 October to condemn the stall.
A student of IIUI Tweeted a photo showing IJT activists burning Israeli flag during the protest:
کارکنان جمعیت اسرائیل کا جھنڈا نذر آتش کر رہے ہیں۔#IIUI #IIUIWithPalestine #IIUIWithIsrael pic.twitter.com/3wl4N0sMyf
— Talha Bin Javed (@Mujahid_e_Islam) October 26, 2014
Activists of Jamiat are burning Israeli flag #IIUI #IIUIWithPalestine #IIUIWithIsrael
Model UN participants who were in the hall told English-language daily Dawn that IJT members weren't the first to speak out against the Israel stall. According to them, attaches from the Iranian and Palestinian missions who attended the event were the first to complain. Like Pakistan, Iran does not recognize Israel.
The university proceeded to suspend the dean of the Faculty of Management Sciences, Dr. Bashir Khan, and student adviser Tasneem Fatima, who were responsible for the Model United Nations event.
In the official statement issued by IIUI’s spokesperson, Mr. Hairan Khattak, said that a few students arranged the stall without the knowledge or permission of university officials. He also, on behalf of IIUI, condemned the incident. “No sooner did they come to know about the matter than the programme was cancelled without any further delay,” he said.
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) further fueled the controversy when it issued a letter to all the universities in response to the incident, asking them to:
remain very vigilant and forestall any activity that in any manner challenge(s) the ideology and principles of Pakistan, and/or perspective of the government of Pakistan.
Many Pakistani activists are protesting the HEC's letter. On Facebook, ICT and human rights organization Bytes For All, Pakistan called it an attack on fundamental freedoms:
The directive is a product of a shallow and fascistic mindset that leads to radicalization in the society. It is also an attempt at institutionalizing mass clampdown of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and assembly. It is unfortunate and condemnable that critical thinking is being banned in universities, instead of being encouraged and inculcated among the youth of Pakistan.
Many IIUI insiders such as students and staff members believed that arranging such stall was a risky move to being with right when Pakistan has in diplomatic ties with Israel and it is one of the most sensitive topic , however, they also say that presenting this whole issue as right vs. left matter by both mainstream and social media is unjust too as almost every one voiced about it perhaps the actions of IJT of closing down the stall and then call for strike gained all the attention in this matter.
Social media was flooded with commentary over the issue. Some Twitter users were aggrieved by the stall in light of Israel's recent offensive against Gaza, which left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead:
While Israelis r busy in killing innocent Palestinians; our shameless IIUI celebrated Israeli cultural day. #Pakistan pic.twitter.com/MyGUsPlqc3
— Fatima Ali (@FatimaAli52) October 29, 2014
for the first time in life feeling ashamed of being an Islamian … IIUI International Islamic University,… http://t.co/057EBu1GYN
— لیٹ لطیف (@WaCaS) October 26, 2014
Recalling this summer's offensive in Gaza, a Twitter user posted this picture using the Hashtag #SaySeBaraJhoot (#TheBiggestLie):
Israel's Culture As I see it versus as @IIUI_OFFICIAL sees it!!! #SabSeBaraJhoot pic.twitter.com/M5LyMOPaK6
— Sara Sultana (@Sara__Sultana) October 25, 2014
Given the outrage, several users tweeted in defense of IIUI and its students, saying that not all the students are responsible so harassing them must end:
Do you have a brain? stop this rubbish, and leave the students #IIUI they are just students dnt do #MUN then http://t.co/DDbq5uBwYX
— by B (@farihabee) October 29, 2014
A few voiced their support of the stall:
#UN recognizes the state of #Israel and it was a Model United Nations! #IIUI #IslamicUniversity
— Saima Saleem (@ssmawani) October 27, 2014
Some shared a photo of the page within the Pakistani passport that says it is not valid for travel to Israel:
A friendly reminder to all those defending #Israeli Stall or find no big deal in setting this one up. PLEASE? #IIUI pic.twitter.com/uORi2qOcGC
— Nouman Khan (@a_guy_nextdoor) October 27, 2014
Others blamed IJT for fanning the flames and condemned the university's response:
@etribune What utter rubbish and lack of intelligence… by the IJT and the IIUI admin that is.
— Arsalan Arshad (@arsalanarshad) October 27, 2014
Height of stupidity. And then we wonder why things don't change in Pakistan. http://t.co/luNeu4FpTu
— Shahrukh Sohail (@shahrukhsohail7) October 27, 2014