To Secular Bangladeshis, Textbook Changes Are a Harbinger
By ELLEN BARRY and JULFIKAR ALI MANIK
Students at a madrasa, or Islamic school, last year in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Changes were recently made to textbooks after requests from conservative Islamic religious scholars. Credit A.M. Ahad/Associated Press
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladesh’s Education Ministry was preparing to print the 2017 editions of its standard Bengali textbooks when a group of conservative Islamic religious scholars demanded the removal of 17 poems and stories they deemed “atheistic.”
By the time the books were distributed to schools on Jan. 1, the 17 poems and stories were gone, with no explanation from the government. Other changes had crept in, too: First graders studying the alphabet were taught that “o” stands for “orna,” a scarf worn by devout Muslim girls starting at puberty, not for “ol,” a type of yam; and a sixth-grade travelogue describing a visit to the Hindu-dominated north of India was replaced by one about the Nile in Egypt.
The changes were barely noticeable to the general public, but they alarmed some Bangladesh intellectuals, who saw them as the government’s accommodating a larger shift toward radical Islam.
Bangladesh has struggled to contain extremist violence in recent years, as Islamist militants have targeted secular writers and intellectuals. But equally significant, over the long term, are changes taking place in the general population: The number of women wearing the hijab has gradually risen, as has the number of students enrolled in madrasas, or Islamic schools.
That religious organizations now have a hand in editing textbooks, a prerogative they sought for years, suggests that their influence is growing, even with the Awami League party, which is avowedly secular, in power.
It is a shift that, increasingly, worries the United States. Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971, and in the decades that followed, it defined itself as adamantly secular and democratic.
For years, this ideology seemed to serve as an insulating force. Transnational jihadist networks that flourished in Afghanistan and Pakistan found little purchase in Bangladesh, despite its dense, poor Muslim population and porous borders.
But over the last several years, as extremist attacks on atheist bloggers and intellectuals became commonplace, secular thought was also fast receding from Bangladesh’s public spaces.
Islamist organizations, analysts say, are so skilled at mobilizing that it has become harder for the government to ignore their demands, especially with a general election coming in 2019.
Hefazat-e-Islam, a vast Islamic organization based in Dhaka, the capital, first called for changes to the textbooks during huge rallies in 2013.
“We went to the higher-ups in the government,” Mufti Fayez Ullah, the group’s joint secretary general, said. “The government realized, ‘Yes, the Muslims should not learn this.’ So they amended it. I want to add that all the political parties, they consider their popularity among the people.”
A spokesman for the Education Ministry would not comment on the changes. Narayan Chandra Saha, chairman of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, said the revisions were routine and not made at anyone’s request.
“If Hefazat claims the changes were made per their demand, I have nothing to say in this regard,” he said.
A protest against the changes, held outside the textbook board’s offices on Sunday, drew a few hundred students and political activists. But there has been no criticism from the country’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party, which typically pounces on any controversial move by the Awami League.
“It’s like there is perfect consensus between the ruling party and the opposition on these issues,” said Amena Mohsin, a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka. “In a majoritarian democracy, you give in to populism.”
The divide between Islamist and secular Bangladeshis came into sharp, sudden focus in 2013, when tens of thousands of activists — mostly students at provincial madrasas — flooded into the center of Dhaka with a list of demands: punishment for “atheist bloggers,” the destruction of sculptures and mandatory Islamic education, including changes to textbooks.
Supporters of Hefazat-e-Islam, a vast Islamic organization based in Dhaka, demanding the enactment of an anti-blasphemy law in 2013. The group has been seeking changes to textbooks. Credit Ismail Ferdous/Associated Press
The government, alarmed, put forward its own education overhaul. Beginning in 2014, education officials required the country’s 10,000 government-registered madrasas to use standardized government textbooks through eighth grade, in the hope of better integrating young people from conservative backgrounds.
Siddiqur Rahman, a retired educator leading the effort to revise government textbooks for use by madrasas, said the goal was “pushing them into general education.”
“There was a wide gap in beliefs and thinking and attitude,” he said. “We are trying to change the attitudes of people on the street. It is difficult, but not impossible.”
It has required many compromises with religious leaders.
Madrasa leaders, in written recommendations to education officials, requested that “beautiful Islamic names” replace Hindu, Christian or foreign-sounding names in textbooks used in madrasas, saying this was “the concrete right of the people of Islamic monotheism.” They also requested the omission of any conversation between boys and girls, saying, “It’s a great sin in Islam to talk to a young girl for nothing.”
The authorities, apparently, were quite receptive. In English textbooks for use in madrasas, all Hindu, Christian or foreign-sounding names have been replaced by Muslim names. Conversations between boys and girls have been omitted. Illustrations of girls with bare heads have been edited out. The word “period” was removed from a section on girls’ physical development. The name of the chairman of the textbook board, a Hindu professor, does not appear.
“The government was a little flexible in that regard,” Mr. Rahman said. “I think that for achieving the greater good, some sacrifice should be made.”
But the officials who oversaw the editing initially refused Hefazat’s demand to omit the 17 poems and stories from the general textbook, used in 20,000 secondary schools as well as madrasas, according to two officials on the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Mufti Fayez Ullah, of Hefazat-e-Islam, said he had been compelled to go over those people’s heads to high-ranking officials.
“If the government is willing to address this demand, bureaucracy cannot be that much of a hurdle,” he said. “We went to the Education Ministry. We went to the higher-ups in the government.”
Rasheda K. Choudhury, an activist who served as a government adviser to the Education Ministry under the previous administration, said it was unclear who made the decision to accept the Islamists’ changes.
“Nobody knew about it. Nobody is taking responsibility,” she said. “Parents are asking me, ‘Should we start teaching our children at home?’”
The leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam, meanwhile, are eager to suggest the next round of changes. Arts and crafts courses should not instruct children to depict anything living, which is proscribed by Islam, and should instead offer instruction only in calligraphy, said Abdullah Wasel, a member of Hefazat’s central committee. The group also wants to eliminate physical education textbooks that depict exercise by girls or young women, Mr. Fayez Ullah said.
“What boys do, girls cannot do,” he said. “I can climb a tree, but my wife and sister, they cannot. It is not necessary to have pictures of girls doing exercise.”
But the larger goal, he said, goes far beyond textbooks. He hopes to push through a full separation of boys and girls beginning in the fifth grade. Mixing of sexes in the classroom, he said, results in young men and women who “prefer to live together, prefer to have physical relations before marriage.”
As for the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, Hefazat has petitioned the government to remove every current member, starting with the board’s chairman, Mr. Saha, who is Hindu, Mr. Fayez Ullah said.
“I would like to raise the question — and I am not saying I am against him — but is there not any Muslim that can be a chairman of the textbook board in this country?” he said. The group, he said, has requested that Mr. Saha be replaced with “a patriot who understands the sentiment and spirit of the population of Bangladesh.”
He added, “You cannot expect to grow jackfruit from a mango tree.”
A version of this article appears in print on January 23, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Turn to Islam in Bangladesh.
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The debate over school textbooks
Use of language in Bangladesh school textbooks is spurring battles across the country. The nation is divided on school textbooks that were distributed recently to school students all over the country. Teachers, educators, parents, social groups and lawmakers are protesting every day in the media. People view the texts as an explicit portrayal of certain religious views and teachings.
People are concerned why the Bangladesh curriculum committee added this year some of those seventeen stories and poems that were not accepted last year, as those allegedly reflect communal sentiments. And why 12 stories and poems rejected earlier by Hefajat E Islam — a political party, were not included. This Islamic political party accused that those pieces reflect the idea of atheism and Hinduism, so those must not be included as texts. The texts of Humayun Azad, Kusumkumari, were also rejected by this party. It is indeed strange to see that to satisfy this party, gendered and religious ideas were included while introducing alphabets in grade 1 textbook. It seems a secular multicultural country lost its essence due to the political trickery of racial and political agenda.
Development of a society is hugely reliant on how it invests in human capital from the early stage of learning. Human capital theory rests on the assumption that formal education is instrumental and necessary for improving the productive capacity of a population. It focuses on productivity and efficiency among the labour force and supports investment in formal education to enhance individuals’ capabilities by increasing their levels of cognitive development. The idea was to invest in the establishment of education systems, create employment and to develop strong cores of workers and managers.
This idea of human capital theory was critiqued as "technocratic-meritocratic" because of its over-emphasis on producing skills and knowledge for learners to become successful workers. It has also been criticised for its failure to adequately address inequality in society. However, since 1970s, Bangladesh like the other developing countries concentrated on this human capital agenda and the belief that teachers’ time and effort can enhance learners’ skills and abilities, leading to job market rewards. But currently, Bangladesh is prone to developing racial texts.
Scholars view racial theory as central to understanding curriculum. The issue of multiculturalism has created debate about whether curriculum reform is necessary. Bangladeshi intellectuals and educators insist that curriculum must be reformed to reflect the history of the nation and its cultures, including those of the ethnic groups.
Reading the current conflicts about the texts issue, I am pessimistic about the role of current formal education, as I consider ’school and the racial and political text’ is the source of social inequalities, increasing unequal power relationships in Bangladesh. I argue that current racial texts will fuel up social inequality and favour a social structure that is biased towards certain religious groups.
This will challenge the significance of education and skills for economic and social development, and the unequal power relationships will undermine the marginalised. Education and employment opportunities are closely inter-related, but school structures and curriculum help maintain society’s social and economic structures. The concept of ideology is central to understanding curriculum as a political text. As the current curriculum appears to have hidden dimensions, its ideological values would negatively affect learners’ self-development.
Racial text is the consequence of the ’tricks and trickery of politics’ of the ruling elites. We hope the government acknowledged how they are losing their political grip to racist, fundamentalist political view. As we all know, how allowing a vulnerable, religious fundamentalist stream into politics and making coalition with them jeopardised Bangladesh’s secular environment.
Past regime’s idea of declaring Islam as a state religion was a hard blow for the multicultural people of Bangladesh. Zia and Ershad regimes are (equally) responsible for dividing the nation in the name of religion. Later on, the current government is alleged to have adopted this divisive notion for its own political advantage. Getting votes with the attitude of ’go with the flow’ is not beneficial in restoring country’s peace, safety, security, and crafting a stable social and political environment.
The writer is an anthropologist and environmentalist. She is pursuing her PhD research on Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, Canada.
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Scholars, writers call for recall of faulty textbooks that feed radicalism
Staff Correspondent, Reuters
Published: 2017-01-11 01:28:50.0 BdST Updated: 2017-01-11 01:29:21.0 BdST
A group of 85 eminent scholars, writers and cultural workers have demanded that the ’error-riddled’ textbooks be withdrawn and action taken against those guilty for the blunder.
Signed by cultural activist Kamal Lohani, the statement issued by the group on Tuesday alleged that materials insinuating fundamentalism and extremism have been intentionally inserted in the books.
They have alleged that the books could encourage fundamentalism and terrorism in Bangladesh.
The statement says, "We strongly demand the immediate withdrawal of the books. At the same time, we demand that the young minds be saved from being fed with ideas of extremism and negativism and help develop a healthy nation by forbidding education through these books."
They have found faults with the book on three counts: "One: Spelling and factual mistakes, Two: Problems in sentence formations and Three: injecting communally sensitive ideas."
They believe that the first two are the results of mismanagement while the third is a planned outcome.
In the statement, they have protested against the government’s indulgence to communalism and terrorism which the "government claims to be against".
"On the one hand, the government is harvesting communalism in the textbook, and on the other, it is peddling poison of discrimination among the young minds," the statement observed.
Protesting against the omission of works by Rabindranath Tagore, Lalon Fakir, Satyen Sen and other writers, the group warned that the "base thinking that allowed deletion of these writers will wreak havoc in the future by inspiring fundamentalism, and extremism in Bangladesh."