On October 19, 2023, Islamic clerics forced Sher Ali, a professor of biology at Government Post Graduate College of Bannu, to publicly apologize after he gave a speech on women’s rights.
On October 5, Ali spoke at an event about women’s rights within the context of Pakistan’s laws and constitution. The event was held following local protests about women allegedly failing to adhere to traditional Islamic dress in public. The event triggered a strong backlash, including denunciation by local Islamic clerics, who accused Ali of “spreading debauchery and speaking against Islam,” and criticized him for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in his courses. The clerics also called on authorities to investigate Ali.
Ali responded to the criticism of his curriculum through a Facebook post, where he stated that it was his responsibility to teach the theory of evolution and those who took issue with it should petition the government for his removal.
Following an intense backlash on social media, administrators at the Government Post Graduate College of Bannu arranged a meeting between Ali and the clerics. On October 19, following the meeting, Ali read a multi-page statement stating that “all scientific and rational ideas [that are] in contradiction to Islamic Sharia, including Darwin’s theory of evolution, are falsehood,” that women are inferior to men and condemning mixed gender gatherings. Ali also specifically apologized for the content of his speeches in seminars, lectures, and social media posts.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about apparent pressure placed upon a scholar, by college administrators or others, to alter, revise or apologize for academic expression concerning matters within his area of professional expertise. Higher education authorities have a responsibility to take all available steps to ensure the exercise of academic freedom, including refraining from placing pressure on scholars to alter their public expression. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such actions have a chilling effect on academic freedom, and undermine institutional autonomy and democratic society more generally.