The alphabet jungle

April 15, 2011

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There is no doubt that in a country like Pakistan, education should be a top priority. It is believed that the country’s dismal literacy rates over the years has contributed in the rise of frustration and crime in the cities, and kept the majority of people in the rural areas ‘superstitious’ and an easy pray to the trickery of false pirs, and the exploitation of feudal lords, jagirdars and maulvis.

A majority of state and government workers, along with various NGOs and donor agencies, who are involved in the uplift of education in the country have suggested that low literacy rates have helped extremist and sectarian organisations in easily ‘brainwashing’ the illiterate young men into committing acts of carnage and bloodshed in the name of religion.

For this purpose, these organisations use a warped mixture of cleverly selected verses from the Quran and sayings (hadith) of the Prophet  (PBUH) – giving it an un-scholarly and distorted interpretation – and an equally twisted worldview about international politics and the ‘sinister’ role being played by Hindus (India), Christians (US/West) and, of course, the Jews.

Nevertheless, there are some prominent intellectuals, educationists and scholars in Pakistan who, in spite of being at the forefront of lobbying for the implementation of far-reaching education policies, have been heading another debate regarding the issue.

Well-known intellectuals and academics such as Pervez Hoodbhoy, Rubina Saigol, A.H. Nayyar and Ahmed Salim along with historians such as Dr. Mubarak Ali and the late K.K. Aziz have for years been highly suspicious and critical of the kind of textbooks being used in schools and colleges across Pakistan, especially since the early 1970s.

Those who were already fretting over the way generations of Pakistani students have been taught skewed history lessons about Islam and Pakistan through state-approved history books, are now worried that the biased and distorted imagery of Muslims and other faiths in textbooks are being given glamorous currency even by certain TV personalities.

To quote Rubina Saigol: ‘After the 1971 break up of Pakistan and the war with India, educational discourse on nation building in Pakistan became much more introverted. The shock and horror of the defeat in East Pakistan led to the reconstruction of ideological boundaries in a much more narrow form. A violent, militaristic and negative nationalism, which saw enemies on every border, was reconstituted. This nationalism was not so much for progress or development as much as against Pakistan’s myriad enemies lurking behind every door.’

This new nationalism required a re-ordering of the past. Those unacceptable to the newly formed insecure national self had to be violently expunged. The pages of time had to be cleansed of the enemy’s presence. Ram, Buddha, Jesus Christ and several others, who had earlier been allowed in with a generous hospitality, had to make unceremonious exits from the pages of history textbooks. In their stead, the Khulfa-i-Rashideen, belonging to Arabia and to an ‘other’  alternative past, were welcomed warmly into the texts.

During General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, religion as an instrument of homogenisation and control became center-stage in educational policies.

An elaborate study conducted by a group of distinguished Pakistani historians and educationalists in 2003 states the prevalence of a theocratic vision in social studies textbooks.

The report noticed the following in Pakistani social studies and history books:

* Insensitivity to the existing religious diversity of the nation.

* Incitement to militancy and violence, including encouragement of jihad and shahadat.

* A glorification of war and the use of force.

* Inaccuracies of fact and omissions that serve to substantially distort the nature and significance of actual events in our history.

* Perspectives that encourage prejudice, bigotry and discrimination towards fellow citizens, especially women and religious minorities.

* Omission of concepts that could encourage critical self awareness among students.

During the Zia era, science too faced the dictator’s Orwellian Islamisation process.

As Professor Hoodbhoy explains in his reveling book, Science & The Islamic World (1988), sullied science and farcical concepts of religion came together in an official conference called by Zia (at the cost of millions of rupees) in which papers on the following, (and absurd) topics were read: The harnessing of Djinns to create an alternative energy source; chemical compositions of Djinns; measuring the temperature of Hell; calculating the formulae for sawab (blessing); and measuring the speed of Heaven!

Further down the hole

Almost every educated Pakistani (after the early 1970s) has received ‘education’ based on the above-mentioned criteria.

However, it is also true that the blatant historical and theological distortions present in school textbooks have been cleverly and subtly built in (mainly by ‘pro-establishment historians and ulema’) into the books.

This means that although many Pakistani children grow up believing certain historical biases and prejudices to be a ‘historical fact,’ there is always room for many to inquire about and revise their understanding through further study and books by genuine historians, progressive Islamic scholars and secular intellectuals.

However, there is now an attempt (mainly by non-state and non-governmental elements) to infiltrate and clog even this space as well.

More than ever, many puritanical organisations which may not necessarily be militant, have started publishing literature to counter the claims of secular historians and intellectuals.

And this doesn’t just stop at Urdu book stores because the religion and history sections of even the most upscale book stores in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad are now graced by books that give so-called historical, theological and ‘geo-political’ arguments for exactly the kind of distortions people like Hoodbhoy, Nayyar, Saigol and Dr. Mubarak have been warning against.

But whereas this particular tussle between the two opposite spectrums has so-far remained intellectual in nature and restricted to middle-class interests, educationists working in the field of schools catering to the lower-middle and the working-classes have been facing an altogether more worrisome phenomenon.

Take the shocking example of a Class-I Urdu book that this writer was made aware of (see picture below).

The contents of the book (being taught to very young children) are all about implanting radical jihadi imagery in young minds (to produce ‘educated jihadis?).

For example, the word and image used to explain the Urdu alphabet ‘bey,’ an illustration of the Kalashnikov and the word ‘bandookh’ (gun) is given.

For the letter ‘tay,’ the word used is ‘takrao’ (impact) and an illustration of a plane hitting the Twin Towers in New York is shown.

For the letter ‘jeem,’ an image of a white jihadi flag and the word ‘jihad’ is used.

For the letter ‘khay,’ an image of a hunting knife (with blood dripping from it) and the word ‘khanjar’ (knife) is used.

For the letter ‘hey,’ an image of a woman fully covered in black cloth and the word ‘hijab’ is used.

For the letter ‘zey,’ the obscure word used is ‘zunoob’ (sin) and the illustration is that of a bonfire made from a pile containing a TV set, a satellite dish, a board game and a guitar.

According the available information, these pages were from books found in certain low-income schools in Karachi’s lower middle-class areas.

On further inquiry it was found (by this writer) that these books were first printed in Karachi (about seven years ago)  for the purpose of being sent to places like Swat, Hangu, Malakand and Waziristan in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

It is not known how many schools these (or similar) books were used to teach school children or whether - especially after the government’s and the Army’s successful operations against jihadi groups in Swat a year ago - they are still being taught.

It is also not known how many schools in Karachi are (or were) using such books. It is however believed that these books were introduced in schools and madrassas being run and funded by certain militant organisations or their ‘front organisations that mainly function as ‘charity outfits.’

When the schools that this writer visited (in some of the city’s working-class and lower middle-class areas), no such literature was found, even though some teachers did acknowledge the fact that some schools were using such books (but they declined to give any further information).

Whether such books are still in use or were being taught during the height of jihadi activity in Pakistan (between 2003 and 2009), one has to continue keeping an eye not only on what is going on in the militant-infested hills and mountains of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the remote plains of South Punjab, but also in certain educational institutions where extremist outfits have found ways  to preach violence (in the name of religion) to young children.

Jihad (Pvt.)

More so, even many private colleges and universities are not free from this malaise.

Whereas politics on state-owned campuses is still a highly charged ‘Islamist/conservative vs. progressive/liberal affair between student organisations, on private campuses it is being subtly and silently penetrated by some elusive socio-political groups.

These groups were unsuccessful in gaining a foothold on state-owned campuses mainly due to the presence of conventional student parties.

The target audience of these new groups are the urban middle-classes.

These groups (at least in educational institutions) do not operate like the conventional student political outfit. In fact, they claim to shun politics and pretend to help students become better and more successful Muslims.

The two main groups having access to private-owned campuses are both Islamic in orientation. One is the apparently harmless but ultra-conservative Tableeghi Jamaat and the other is the controversial Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

The Tableeghi Jamaat and the Tahrir have been making deep inroads into privately-owned universities and colleges for the last decade or so.

The consequences of this are not entirely apolitical because at least the Tahrir is a political organisation with an agenda to ‘unify the ummah’ (through a modern-day caliphate). It is also supposedly banned in Pakistan.

Even though it was Abul ala Maududi’s ‘political Islam’ that was introduced into the once secular Pakistan Army by Ziaul Haq, by the early 1990s the Tableeghi Jamaat began having a bigger impact, turning the politics of the institution into a strange fusion of Maududi’s political Islam and the Jamaat’s social aspirations.

That is why the political impact of the Tahrir and the Tableeghi Jamaat’s preaching in private universities and colleges sees the affected students eventually coming close to the worldview peddled by some in the conservative military establishment.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn