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Textbooks as primers for extremism

by Amjad Nazeer, 21 January 2011

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(Viewpoint, 21 January 2011)

It is absolutely urgent to revisit our education policy now. The offshoots of unprecedented extremism and violence, we are suffering from, are definitely located in our educational system and policy content too.

Despite some improvement, education policy 1998-2010 is still mired into problems and shortfalls of means and methods – meant to foster attitudes, identities and values of the young souls. Stating its’ objectives as ‘enabling citizens to lead their lives according to the teachings of Islam...and training them as practicing Muslims’ it clearly limits its outcome from the onset. Achieving the ideal of objective and analytical thinking aside, Pakistan employs its’ educational policy to promote Islamic ideology and political agenda of the state.

Envisioned in the First Educational Conference 1947 and intensified in the 1980s, Islamization of education continues unabated. Integrated as well as elective Pakistan Studies and Islamiat remain compulsory from Grade I to XII down to the degree level. Sufficient knowledge of the same is a must for employment, particularly in the field of teaching. Privately run institutions are also bound to follow the instructions and principles set by Federal Curricula Act 1976, mainly implying to Pakistan Studies and Islamiat. Aiming to modernize and democratize, Pakistan’s education policy paradoxically stumbles with two-nation-theory, Islamic nationalism and cultivation of a unified identity.

Prejudice, discrimination and bigotry are disproportionately infused in all subjects of social studies like Urdu, English, Islamiat, Civics and Pakistan Studies. Islamic teachings are overwhelmingly present all across, naturalizing jihad, shahadah, Muslim superiority and inequalities of gender, class and religion. Glorification of war and violence also features in directly or indirectly. Inaccuracy of historical acts, events and their causalities misrepresent the past. Polemics fill omissions and distortions corrupt a true picture of the present. To propagate two-nations-theory Hindu and Muslim cultures are depicted widely different denominating religion, language as well as costumes and food to undermine the fact of conversions and sub-continental similarities.

Subscribing to the ideology of Pakistan, a post-partition genre, Pakistan movement is presented as an Islamic rather than a political movement starting from Muhammad-bin-Qasim and ending with Jinnah’s struggle for Pakistan. In this effort the great Mughal emperor Akbar is dwarfed for his inclusive and pluralist rule as he mismatches the present bitterness. Rivalled by Ahmed Sarhindi – then a fundamentalist cleric who even decreed mathematics and science as haram – Akbar tastes a humiliating defeat at his hands in the textbooks. The oppressive Aurangzeb, instead, is overblown as a pious king making caps and copying holy Quran for his livelihood. Brave soldiers participating in the Independence War 1857 from present Pakistan, as identified by Arif Hassan, are never acknowledged because Hindu-Muslim cooperation was exemplary this time.

So much so, the secularist educational vision of Sir Syyed and liberalist political thoughts of Jinnah are imbued in religious hue. Post-partition upheavals like the emergence of Bangladesh and frequent military and bureaucratic interventions in affairs of the state are either justified or simply overlooked keeping the students ignorant to facts.

Also relevant to mention here is that politically important poems of Faiz, Faraz or Qasmi are subsided and the works of Prem Chand, Hassan Nizami, Minto and Intizar Hussain, for instance, are truncated adjusting them to official outlook. Unfortunately, number of populist historians and Islamists writing supplementary books also subscribe to similar views, without authorization of the textbook authorities. As an outcome most students fail to develop a fair sense of history, social fabric and political issues of the country. A thorough assessment of the said distortions was made by SDPI in 2003, which is still valid.

To policy makers, there might be nothing wrong in promoting state ideology and Islam in a predominantly Muslim society but the approach squarely turns the philosophy of education upside down. Two of its implications are essential to interpret:

First, it does not cease to a matter of faith or national ideology rather constitutes entire worldview and dogmatism of society, politics and economic phenomena. Later it authorises the accuracy or inaccuracy of knowledge, allowing or disallowing practices and perspectives any different from already consumed. What does not transpire the revealed truth is vehemently rejected. Modern scientific knowledge is largely disdained as western, materialistic or evil devoid of morality and spirituality. Tied to religious principles and self-righteous moral values, rationality and scientific progress halts. Placing a full stop to impartial inquisition - the key method of inquiry - makes truth static and singular. Accumulating ultimate authority of truth every other form of knowledge becomes speculative to religious beliefs. What differs from the religious principles is alleged to be sin or misguidance. In Maudoodi’s opinion, heavily influencing Jamat-e-islami’s agenda today, scientific knowledge is untrustworthy for its incompatibility with Islamic principles.

The remedial of western knowledge, in to such scholars, is not to innovate or create alternative understanding or practices rather revive the old. Innovation is bidat – something awful and cursed. Tradition is preferred over rationality. Revival is upheld over change and progress. Challenging authority - of elders or ancient mythologies - is rude (gustakhi). Therefore modern knowledge boils down to gustakhi for it challenges conventional truth. In blind opposition to rational knowledge, conservative Ulemas even refrain quoting the Quranic verses emphasising thought (tadabur) and research (tahqeeq).

Interestingly, medieval Muslims scientists, pioneering hundreds of inventions and discoveries, marking its’ legacies in the modern day Europe, never saw a collision between rational thinking and their faith as do Pakistani Ulemas. In reality, the aim of those opposing the pursuit of objective pursuits is not to advocate an alternative knowledge but to dominate the discourses of power. That is the second fatal explained as under:

The Islamists hegemonize domains of history, education, political science, economics and even scientific exegesis that often lead to dictatorship and authoritarianism. Privileged by the Ideological apparatus of Islam religious forces mediate society and the state that we witness for the last two decades. Voices of Islamic democracy, Islamic system of governance and Islamic banking are the offshoots of Islamizing modern polity, stretching its’ constituency to all spheres of life. Such systems dangerously authorize clerics to scrap or sanctify a politico-economic system of the state.

Islamization of education, as described by Aziz Talbani, legitimizes Islamic knowledge for power and social control. Education is manoeuvred for radical change in societal discourses, structures and sources of power. Gradually Islam itself becomes a mandatory goal of education and instrument of power too. Textbooks are spaces to contest power and ideology legitimizing and delegitimizing political movements. Academic institutions generate and sustain power cultivating broader social conformity. Dominant discourses, as exhaustively interpreted by Michael Foucault, exclusively appropriate knowledge, power and truth. Propagating a discourse in which religion is the only rightful knowledge and every other knowledge is preposterous worth condemning, is the dangerous trend we are heading towards. Opposed to scientific quest and suppressing children’s natural curiosity and creativity, religious supremacy gives birth to bigotry, violence and extremism.

Understandably, history and religion are difficult to avoid under any system of governance. Therefore a careful and unbiased version of these subjects is recommended designed to evolve respect for all cultures and religions. Empathy, compassion and human values that are part of all religious traditions, including Islam, be promoted through textbooks to generate a fair understanding and respect for fellow citizens. The difficult moral and political questions of the day can be dealt by presenting humane values of all religions.

Students must be demonstrated that love, freedom and respect for rights undeniably lead towards peace, prosperity and pleasure for the individual and the collective. Virtues of diversity, justice, equality be internalized amongst through a socialization process. The ultimate aim should be presented to live in harmony with nature and human society. Through selected lessons and audio-visual aids students need to be assured that life is valuable and mutual hatred, conflicts and war always lead to death and destruction. Modern methods and strategies of formulating or prescribing textbooks, entirely conscious of the values of peace and human rights, are unquestionable requirement for Pakistan already bleeding from religious antagonisms.

Great teachers right from Socrates to Paulo Friere advocate a system of education that evokes children’s faculty of questioning and critical thinking and challenging conventional authorities. Only objective inquiry into any phenomenon can lead towards the advancement of knowledge and social good.

Amjad Nazeer did M.A in Anthropology from Quid-e-Azam University in 1995. He produced several articles and booklets to promote ’peace’, ’human rights’ and ’democratization’ in Pakistan. Presently doing M.A in Human Rights from Roehampton University, London.