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US curriculum aid?

April 04, 2013

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THE enterprise for which some Pakistani officials and religious scholars are reported to have joined hands with US experts, namely, production of a model curriculum for madressahs, is unlikely to go unchallenged.

The need for reforming the curricula for madressahs and also for other educational institutions cannot be denied. The matter has indeed been the subject of public debate for decades.

The expertise of American curriculum manufacturers also cannot be disputed. The success achieved by them in raising a large crop of jihadis can hardly be forgotten by the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In normal circumstances there should be no objection to going to the international educational market to buy textbooks suited to Pakistani needs. This may well be considered a rational step. But there are not many takers for rationalism in contemporary Pakistan.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for Pakistanis to ponder over the messages they receive because they are often in a hurry to shoot the messenger. In the present situation any curriculum package bearing the US trademark, however correct or perfect, will only provide grist to the mills of obscurantists.

The obscurantists have not always been opposed to US aid for education. There was a time when they were the principal beneficiaries of such aid and its critics were mainly advocates of rational and scientific education. Among other things, the latter were unhappy at the strength the conservative sections of society received from the way educational centres, such as the Institute of Education and Research at the Punjab University, functioned under American patronage. The damage caused to the Pakistani people’s collective consciousness by Cold War politics is still visible.

Thus while discussing the content of education that will determine the thinking and behaviour of our coming generations we need to be extra careful in accepting foreign input whether it comes from the US or Saudi Arabia or anywhere else. Incidentally, who decided to dispatch government officials and madressah scholars across the Atlantic to look for model Islamic lessons?

Was the initiative discussed at any level of acknowledged competence and responsibility?

Unfortunately, the brief report on the subject carried in this paper’s edition on Monday does not encourage optimism about the prescription recommended by an American think tank. There is nothing new in the suggestion that the madressah curriculum should include, besides religious studies, foreign languages (especially English), mathematics and sciences (both physical and social). Many madressahs in Pakistan have already done this.

The madressah alumni’s ignorance of modern sciences is not a major issue now. A good number of extremists that are threatening to capture the state of Pakistan use their knowledge of science to assemble and set up explosive devices. Many of them have had the benefit of attending European and American educational institutions.

The addition of modern sciences to the madressah curriculum alone will not change their students’ mindset for the better. The critical issue in madressah curriculum is the choice of religious texts, their interpretation and application in a given environment.

Any serious effort to include in the religious core “a strong emphasis on critical thinking skills, human rights and tolerance for other sects, faiths and cultures” should be welcome provided no formula is imposed by the state, on its own or under external prompting.

Also welcome is the idea of persuading Pakistani ulema to see how other Muslim societies, from Indonesia to Egypt, are dealing with religious education. It would be better to defer throwing finished courses at the Pakistani madressah controllers till the ideas of change have been thoroughly debated in public forums.

The need for a consensus-based approach to the task of revising the religious content in the general school syllabus has been highlighted by the recent controversy over the deletion of some lessons from an Urdu textbook for Matric classes in Punjab. Earlier, the Peshawar textbook board had to withdraw changes in textbooks because of criticism for deleting certain religious texts instead of replacing them with appropriate ones.

To understand the factors that are driving Pakistan’s young ones towards intolerance and violence it is necessary to look at the environment the state’s social priorities, politicians’ rhetoric and the media’s patronage of retrogressive tendencies have created. Two instances will help realise this better.

At a recent HEC-sponsored meeting on the curriculum for the mass communication departments of Pakistani universities the suggestion that human rights should be included in the syllabus was unceremoniously shot down with the excuse (wrong in fact) that teachers for such studies were not available. If human rights is a subject tabooed for graduate/post-graduate classes, how can it be introduced, as it must be, in schools and madressahs?

At a government-run institute for higher learning in Islamabad, Muslim students covered their hands with towels before holding the hand of a non-Muslim fellow student. The evil went unchecked.

Before seeking foreign aid for reforming madressah education Pakistani leaders and opinion-makers must decide what their vision for the state and society is, what they would want Pakistan to become. The decision is to be made by them and nobody else.

Tailpiece: The holy priests who are asking election candidates to recite Dua-i-Qunut are doing no service to democracy or Islam. They are bound to get buried under the mess they are religiously making of Articles 62 and 63.

Despite my opposition to all morality tests in politics except for the original provisions in the 1973 constitution, I wonder if anyone will be barred from the electoral process for holding bonded haris in his private prison, or denying the minimum wage to his employees, or breaking the legs of his wife, or presiding over an illegal jirga, crimes somewhat more serious than the non-payment of a utility bill. Perhaps in such cases disqualification can only follow conviction. Justice indeed.