Op-ed: Roots of absolutism
Dangerous strains of the absolutist ideology associated with madrassahs have crept into the mainstream government education system, producing children who are easy prey to sectarian and ethnic hate-mongers. Fixing school curriculum has to be the top priority
It is well-known that madrassahs, sanctuaries of traditional Islamic learning, were turned, with our connivance, into centres of militancy and absolutist ideology to fight the CIA/Saudi Arabia-sponsored jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The current terrorist outrage that has frozen up investors and threatens our nascent economic recovery is payback for that blunder.
Less well-known is the fact that several dangerous strains of that ideology have now crept into the mainstream public education system run by the government. In a recent report, “The Subtle Subversion”, authors A.H. Nayyar and Ahmed Salim at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) systematically investigate the curricula and textbooks used in Pakistan’s government schools. They show how, beginning with Ziaul Haq’s regime, the textbooks have been subverted to promote an absolutist ideology.
The authors, with the help of 30 leading experts on the country’s education system gathered at the SDPI last year, ploughed through course materials for Social/Pakistan Studies and Urdu and English used in class I to Class XII. This is what they find:
* inaccuracies of fact and omissions that distort our history
* insensitivity to the religious diversity of the nation
* incitement to militancy and violence, encouraging jihad and shahadat (martyrdom)
* encouraging prejudice, bigotry and discrimination against women and minorities
* discouraging critical self-awareness
The report highlights the all-pervasive and anti-India, specifically anti-Hindu bias in the course material. There is virtually no acknowledgement of the contributions to the country made by non-Muslims such as A R Cornelius, Dorab Patel, Sobho Gianchandani, Cecil Choudhry and Bapsi Sidwa. A largely Sunni version of Islam dominates the course material, not just of Islamiat, but also Pakistan Studies, Urdu and English.
Heavy religious content permeates Urdu textbooks in particular: four out of 25 lessons in Class I are on Islam, eight out of 33 in Class II, 10 out of 45 in Class IV, seven out of 34 in Class V, 14 out of 46 lessons in Class VI, 16 out 53 lessons in Class VII, 15 out of 46 lessons in Class VIII and 10 out of 68 lessons in Classes IX to X.
Here are some nuggets contained in textbooks compulsory for all students, Muslim and non-Muslim:
“Our country is Pakistan. We live in our country. Pakistan is an Islamic country. Here Muslims live. Muslims believe in the unity of Allah. They do good deeds” (Class II Urdu textbook).
“Who am I? I am a Muslim. I am a Pakistani. I love my country and I love my people ... you know that you are a Muslim and your religion is Islam” (Class Six Urdu textbook).
Another textbook exhorts: “Good people are those who read the Qur’an and teach the Qur’an to others”.
And what is a Christian or a Hindu or a Parsee child to feel on reading this compulsory material? And how does the Muslim child thus indoctrinated view his non-Muslim neighbour in the class or indeed in the big, wide world?
The themes of jihad and shahadat recur in textbooks obeying instructions of the National Curriculum for Social Studies. Here are some of the instructions:
“Learning outcomes: Recognize the importance of jihad in every sphere of life. Awareness of the blessings of jihad. Must create a yearning for jihad in the heart of the child. Promote love and aspiration for jihad, Tableegh (proselytisation), jihad, shahadat, sacrifice, ghazi (the victor in holy wars), shaheed (martyr).”
Viewing the world through the prism of religion results in a unique interpretation of history. The report cites a textbook of Pakistan Studies:
“....as a matter of fact, Pakistan came to be established for the first time when the Arabs under Mohammed bin Qasim occupied Sindh and Multan in the early years of the eighth century, and established Muslim rule in this part of the South Asian Sub-continent. Pakistan under the Arabs comprised the Lower Indus Valley.” The text goes on, “...the 11th century Ghaznavid Empire comprised what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. During the 12th century the Ghaznavids lost Afghanistan, and their rule came to be confined to Pakistan”.
There is no room in this absolutist worldview for the vast majority of Pakistani children whose ancestors converted from Hinduism, probably because of its oppressive caste system, and have an identity rooted in the Indus Basin quite distinct from the Afghans, the Iranians and the Arabs with whom the child is exhorted to identify.
Such course material extends the madrassah worldview to government schools, in effect creating a two-tier system of education split along income lines. The middle class children attend private schools whose curriculum is geared towards a more rational worldview. The poor, meanwhile, are indoctrinated, even in government schools, in a fatalistic ideology that is shockingly ignorant and cynical about the rest of the world. This amounts to sowing the seeds of a class war. Given the religion-based absolutist ideological underpinnings, this class hatred increasingly results in tragedies such as the two recent events in Quetta.
Economists and others who recommend increasing education expenditures as a necessary condition for economic development focus only on inputs i.e., money spent on education or enrolment rates or, at best, years of completed schooling. What matters is the product of the education system. And if the curriculum is as dangerously misguided as the report argues, the input-based focus on education will clearly not suffice.
To improve the product of education, the report recommends:
* Establish a national education board of leading public/private educationists
* Abolish the curriculum wing of the Ministry of Education
* Abolish textbook boards
* Reform the national curriculum to remedy falsehoods, distortions and omissions.
* Remove material encouraging discrimination against women, religious and ethnic minorities and other nations
* Remove incoherent, inconsistent, arbitrary concepts and pedagogical problems in the course material.
The report is compulsory reading.
The writer is a leading economist of Pakistan