By James M. Dorsey
Societal struggles and reform often take unexpected turns in vast swaths of land stretching from the Middle East into Central Asia.
Take education for example.
The Taliban have yet to fulfil their promise to allow girls to return to school but primary and secondary Afghan textbooks appear to be a relative bright spot amid all the doom and gloom about the group’s rule.
It’s a bright spot that highlights the deep societal impact of decades of ultra-conservative Saudi influence in Pakistan at a time that an Israel-based NGO is reporting significant progress in the way the kingdom’s textbooks describe non-Muslims and discuss violence in the name of Islam.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear scientist and Pakistani human rights activist, concluded from a recent survey of Urdu-language Afghan textbooks that they were light years ahead of what Pakistani schools offer.
Mr. Hoodbhoy argued that the Taliban were unlikely to change the textbooks in use anytime soon. Afghanistan’s brain drain includes many teachers, writers and editors and the Taliban don’t have the wherewithal to produce a new generation of textbooks. The group, moreover, is unlikely to have fundamental problems with the books that sugar-coat its brutal rule before the 2001 US invasion.
The science books for classes 1-12 that cover mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science surveyed by Mr. Hoodbhoy were in his words “clear and pleasing with systematically organised graphs and coloured illustrations.”
He noted that “Pakistani textbooks are very different. For years my colleagues and I have begged our education authorities to drastically revise locally published textbooks. All are faulty in content, poor in pedagogy and badly presented.”
Already back in 2015, Mr. Hoodbhoy called for revised textbooks in Pakistan.
“Please keep our students away from the rotten science textbooks published by the Sindh Textbook Board (STB), an entity operating under the Sindh Ministry of Education. Else yet another generation will end up woefully ignorant of the subjects they study — physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Tragically they will see these magnificent human achievements as pointless, boring, and dry as dust,” he wrote in an op-ed titled ‘Burn these books, please!’
Abdul Hameed Nayyar, a physicist and education consultant, analysing the Pakistan government’s troubled effort to introduce a single national curriculum came to a similar conclusion. “Textbooks provided by the state are of abysmal quality, both in content as well as in presentation. Pakistani textbook boards have repeatedly proved unable to provide good-quality learning material,” Mr. Nayyar said.
Messrs. Hoodbhoy and Nayyar’s assertions are backed up by a decade of independent Annual Status of Education Report surveys that lament quality of learning in public, private, urban and rural secular and religious schools.
In contrast to Pakistani books, Afghan textbooks teach different schools of Muslim religious law separately. They also keep religion out of secular subjects. “The religious textbooks are comprehensive… Special books for use in madrassahs cover usual topics in math, science, English, and world history. But they are simpler and less detailed than those for ordinary schools,” Mr. Hoodbhoy said.
In Pakistani textbooks, particularly those developed as part of the government’s flagging effort to create a single national curriculum, Mr. Hoodbhoy argued that “religious topics permeate books teaching Urdu, English and general knowledge. Quite senselessly, madrassahs and ordinary schools are yoked together. While all students should know how the modern world works, 99 per cent of madrassah students will never use math or science professionally. So why use the same books and force students to take the same exams? This means the….government is shooting for a lowest common denominator, lower than even the existing one.”
In a similar vein, Mr. Nayyar charged that the policymakers behind the single curriculum “believe — contrary to all available evidence — that a greater dose of religious education will produce more honest and useful citizens of Pakistan.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan affirmed Messrs Hoodbhoy and Nayyar’s criticism when he earlier this year announced education reforms that would Islamicize syllabi across the board from primary schools to universities. Critics charged that religion would account for up to 30 per cent of the syllabus. Referring to the religious content in the first four years of primary school, Mr. Nayyar noted that “when compared against Islamiat taught in madrassahs at this level, it turns out that public and private schools will be teaching more religion than even the madrassahs.”
Defending the Islamization, Muhammad Bashir Khan, a member of parliament for Mr. Khan’s ruling party, insisted that "Pakistan is an ideological Islamic state and we need religious education. I feel that even now our syllabus is not completely Islamized, and we need to do more Islamization of the syllabus, teaching more religious content for the moral and ideological training of our citizens."
Prime Minister Khan this week reinforced his vision by promising religious scholars to involve them alongside educational institutions in the creation of a character-building of society. Mr. Khan coupled that with a pledge to ensure that no laws would be adopted as long as he was in office, including ones intend to counter domestic violence and forced conversions to Islam, that are “in direct conflict with the teachings of Islam.”
Mr. Khan’s Pakistan is in good company. Turkey, increasingly a Pakistani ally, was once a model of secularism with an education system that taught evolution, cultural openness, and tolerance towards minorities that included Kurdish as a minority language.
Turkish curricula, however, have increasingly replaced those concepts with notions of jihad, martyrdom in battle and a neo-Ottoman and pan-Turkist ethnoreligious worldview, according to an analysis of 28 textbooks.
In South and Central Asia, the irony is that it is Pakistani rather than Afghan textbooks that appear more likely to promote the notion of an Islamic state if only because of the poor quality of textbooks for secular subjects and the problems with religious instruction in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state. This is not to say that a deeper dive into Afghan texts would not produce multiple problematic concepts that promote Muslim supremacism.
The conclusion from this is that the international community would likely do well to pay as much attention to Pakistan and its education system as it does to Afghanistan given that the two countries are intertwined at multiple levels.
Another irony is that Saudi Arabia’s most recent textbooks could point Pakistan in the right direction. Current Pakistani textbooks are products of a world in which Saudi ultra-conservatism empowered by Saudi funding made deep inroads into an already deeply conservative Pakistani society.
That is, however, changing. Saudi schoolbooks are no longer what they were several years ago.
In a just-published study, IMPACT-se, a Ramat Gan-based research group that has been analysing Saudi textbooks since 2003, reported that as a result of reforms “twenty-eight lessons featuring demonization of the other and religious intolerance were (recently)removed or heavily modified” in Saudi textbooks. “An entire textbook unit on jihad was scrapped. While problematic material remains in Saudi textbooks, these represent profound changes in these categories.”
That is the kind of overhaul that is long overdue in Pakistan and no doubt would also be beneficial in Afghanistan.
If textbooks are indicators, Afghanistan may prove to be only one of South and Central Asia’s problem states. Long perceived as problematic, Pakistan could be the other.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.