Updated February 16, 2020


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In 1992, while working as a reporter for an English-language weekly in Karachi, I was assigned a feature on certain books that were part of the curriculum in schools operating in two low-income areas of the city.

These were not government schools. They were largely run and funded by “charity organisations”, two of which were eventually banned by the government in 2003. I managed to acquire two Urdu textbooks that were being taught to students between the ages of eight and 12. In simple Urdu, the books had chapters on jihad, infidels, obscenity, etc.

When I asked an active member of one of the charity organisations about the books, he told me the tomes were not originally published in Pakistan. To my astonishment, the books in question were actually reprints of textbooks that were first authored and printed in the US in the early and mid-1980s. They were then shipped to Pakistan, where they were distributed to various schools and madressahs countrywide and to madressahs and schools in the villages of Afghanistan near the Pak-Afghan border.

This was done during the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan between 1980 and 1988. Afghan and Arab insurgents (the mujahideen) were stationed in Pakistan and sustained by financial aid and support from the US and Saudi Arabia.

In the March 23, 2002 issue of the Washington Post, Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway write that, during the insurgency, Ronald Reagan’s government spent millions on the printing of textbooks (in Pashto, Dari and Urdu) “filled with violent images and militant teachings, as part of covert attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation.” These books were sent to Pakistan with the billions of dollars’ worth of “aid” that Pakistan received from the US to facilitate the insurgency.

Ronald Reagan’s government spent millions on printing textbooks propagating jihad and dessiminating them in Pakistani madressahs and public schools in the 1980s. Some were still being used until 2015

Stephens and Ottaway add that the books “were filled with talk of holy war and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines.” After the Soviet forces left the region, in the late 1980s, these books became part of the Afghan school system’s core curriculum. Stephen and Ottaway write that the same books were also used by the violent Taliban regime that came to power in Kabul in 1996.

In 2002, just months after the US forces ousted the Taliban from power, an American foreign aid official stated that a major ‘scrubbing operation’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been launched “to purge from the books all references to killing.” This was briefly covered by a 2002 issue of Daily News, the now defunct Pakistani English newspaper. The reporter had added that, before ‘scrubbing’ the books that it had circulated, the US was the first non-Muslim power to have propagated “holy war” among Muslims to undermine a “common enemy”. This is not correct.

The first to do so was Germany. On October 14, 1914, a senior cleric in Istanbul — which at the time was the capital of the Ottoman Empire — declared a ‘holy war’ against Britain, France, Russia and Serbia. He did this with the approval of the Ottoman Sultan and on the behest of Germany.

The bankrupt empire had decided to become an ally of Germany during the First World War. The Sultan accepted a hefty payment from Germany to bolster the ailing Ottoman economy. He also saw the alliance as an opportunity for the empire to regain the regions that it had lost in the 19th century and onwards.

In the April 2011 issue of the journal War in History, historian Mustafa Aksakal writes that, to anti-German forces, the Ottoman jihad proclamation was understood as “a linchpin of the German scheme to revolutionise Muslim populations in territories of Germany’s enemies.”

According to Aksakal, the German lawyer, historian and archeologist Max von Oppenheim was one of the main architects of the ‘scheme’. A propaganda organisation, the Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient (The Intelligence Bureau for the East), headquartered in Berlin, produced and then circulated jihadist literature among the Muslims of Asian and African territories held by the British.

The two most prominent texts in this context were a booklet by Jewish scholar and founder of Modern Islamic Studies in Germany, Eugen Mittwoch, and a 1915 brochure by the Muslim scholar Salih Ash-Sharif Al-Tunisi. According to Samuel Krug, in his essay for the research project Making War, Mapping Europe, the booklet contextualised jihad according to contemporary politics, whereas Tunisi’s brochure explained it as a binding theological concept. Both texts were published in Berlin by the German Society of Islamic Studies.

The fallouts of the two schemes, one by Germany and the other by the US, were completely different. Due to the fact that Germany and the Ottomans badly lost the war, secular Muslim nationalism and hybrid leftist ideas completely sidelined the jihadist fervour roused by German propaganda. German and Ottoman defeats strengthened secular nationalist narratives in Muslim countries and discarded theocratic ideas.

On the other hand, as British author Jonathan Steele demonstrates in his 2011 book Ghosts of Afghanistan, even though it was the collapsing Soviet economy that forced Soviet forces to leave Afghanistan and then the stopping of aid to the government that it left behind in Kabul, the US and Pakistan spun the Soviet departure to mean a “victory of faith against communism.”

It was this perception that saw militant propaganda devised by the US to linger in the region. No wonder then, when the US forces invaded Kabul to topple the Taliban regime in 2001, they found madressahs still using textbooks that the US had circulated in the 1980s.

What’s more, according to a December 2014 report in the Washington Post, despite the fact that, ever since 2002 ,Unicef in Afghanistan destroyed almost half a million of these books, many were still being taught to children in areas under the control of Taliban insurgents.

In 2015, Pakistani soldiers found similar textbooks in seminaries and schools in areas that were once dominated by extremist groups. These groups were ousted through a military operation. In other words, until 2015, textbooks authored and published in the US in the 1980s to glorify ‘holy war’ in the minds of young Muslims were still being used in various seminaries and schools of the region.

Some commentators suspect many of these tomes are still out there. And they are expected to make a full comeback if (and/or when) the Taliban manage to return to power after the imminent departure of US forces.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 16th, 2020