Pakistan’s historical narrative and its education system

June 28, 2010

jinnah flagManan Ahmed at Chapati Mystery has a great post linking Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber,  Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani woman convicted and jailed in the United States, and Mohammad bin Qasim, who first brought Islam to South Asia by conquering Sind in the 8th century.

The common thread is the historical narrative Pakistan has created for itself; and Shahzad’s own explicit reference to bin Qasim in a 2006 email to friends  published last month.  

“17 year old Mohammad bin Qasam attacked the Sub-continent Pak-o-Hind and defeated infidel ruler Raja Dahir because there came to him news of a Muslim women who was raped!!! and today our beloved Prophet (Katimun Nabieen Mohammad al-Ameen) PBUH has been disrespected and disgraced in the whole world and we just sit and watch with shame and sorrow and most of us don’t even care,” reads the email published by the New York Times.

According to Manan Ahmed, this view of bin Qasim – that he invaded then Hindu-ruled Sind in defence of a Muslim woman – has found itself a symbolic torchbearer in Aafia Siddiqui, a Muslim woman seen as unfairly convicted by American “infidels”.  Not only had she been taken up as a rallying cry by religious parties and not only had politicians pledged to fight her case, her sister, Fauzia, had been quoted as saying “we are waiting for a Muhammad bin Qasim to come and rescue Aafiya.”

“This particular brand of national machismo projected onto a woman’s body is neither new nor unique, yet it is a potent mixture in the oppressive, patriarchal Pakistani middle class. The mullahs can safely rage about the nation’s daughter, and the street urchins can eagerly vow to invade Manhattan,” he writes.

“Yet, until we dismantle the whole edifice underpinning this construction, there is little one can do to fight the narrative. Aafiya Siddiqui may well have caught the nation’s attention without the literary linkage to Pakistan’s originary past – her story is fabulous enough. But it is that very link which sustains it now, gives it immediate historical resonance and, most importantly, predicts the future – an armed struggle to free Aafiya. Such is the power of historical memory, such is the reach of state-sanctioned hegemonic accounts. And this is exactly why we need new histories of Pakistan.”

There’s more.  In an earlier post, Manan Ahmed assesses how Pakistan’s own view of bin Qasim changed after the loss of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971, which deprived it of its original justification as a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. To make up for the defeat, and find a reason to bind its different ethnic groups together, it stressed its much older Islamic heritage.

“From the mid 1970s, a dominant theme of unification and Islam arose in all the discourse of the state. Even the secularist (Zulfikar Ali) Bhutto, sought to rally the people around the twin green flags (Pakistan and Islam),” he writes.  “A particular history of the nation was disseminated in official discourse, school textbooks, nationalist novels, and public commemorations to explain the ancestral and ideological formation of the citizenry.”

 ”That this was a practice started after 1971 is clear when one examines school textbooks from the 50s and 60s. In the higher grades, those textbooks mention Hindus in a neutral tone. In fact, they were critical of Muhammad b. Qasim. Under Zia, the process of “Islamization” eliminated all doubts from the curriculum. As a result, MbQ became the first model citizen of the state of Pakistan. The compulsory textbook for 9th & 10th grade proclaimed:

“Pakistan came to be established for the first time when the Arabs under Muhammad 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.   For the first time the people of Sindh were introduced to Islam, its political system and way of government. The people here had seen only the atrocities of the Hindu rajas … the people of Sindh were so much impressed by the benevolence of Muslims that they regarded Muhammad bin Qasim as their savior.”
Every country has a skewed historical narrative – in line with the George Orwell imperative that “who controls the past controls the future”. 
As a child growing up in Scotland, I thought for many years that world history began and ended with the Jacobite rebellions against the English. Following the defeat of the Highlanders’ dream of independence at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, our teachers moved swiftly on to the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the beginning of the British Indian empire, where Scots – deprived of independence and opportunities at home – found money and power overseas.
India, and particularly the Hindu right, romanticises the 1857 sepoy revolt against British rule as the First War of Independence, often without acknowledging that it was fought largely in the name of the last Moghul emperor. U.S. history of its civil war tends to define it, at least in the popular imagination, as purely a battle against slavery – arguably creating a narrative that wars are about good versus evil that prevails to this day.
So Pakistan is not alone in writing its history in a way which it hopes will allow it to survive and thrive as a nation. The question is not really which country’s history is correct – and that will always be a subjective judgment – but which serves it best.  An expedient narrative which unites the people in the short-term is not necessarily one which is useful in the long term – particularly if it encourages your own people to turn to Islamist militancy against the state itself.
This Brookings Institute report on the education system in Pakistan (pdf)  makes a good case for the problems of the historical narrative in Pakistan. Questioning the view that the main problem is the plethora of Islamist madrasas, it argues nonetheless that education, rather than poverty, is a primary driver in encouraging militancy.
“The history of education in Pakistan is in many ways a textbook example of how educational processes and structures can shape conflict dynamics. Historically, education in Pakistan has been used as a tool by successive regimes in pursuing narrow political ends,” it says.
“Deriving largely from General Zia’s political objective of Islamization, but building on a long legacy of using the education system to inculcate fidelity to Pakistan, the content of curricula and textbooks from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s heavily promoted an ‘ideology of Pakistan’, described by scholars as a ‘national narrative’ of Pakistan as an Islamic state under threat from a hostile India. In the words of one prominent education scholar, ’1959 may have been the last time an education policy was driven by education, not by politics. After 1965, education, patriotism, nationalism and dogma became synonymous.’”
“In these curricula and textbooks, historical facts are altered and whole epochs are omitted, all with the aim of securing a strong national identity and allegiance to the state. Hatred toward India and Hindus in particular is prominent in the curricula and textbooks used across schools today.”
Do please read the whole report before leaping to judgment. We all of us have our historical skeletons. And before commenting, “let he who be without sin cast the first stone”.  Or in more modern parlance – since we’ve had a run of bad comments recently - destructive, bigoted, irrelevant or simply overly long comments will be deleted.

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