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Comparing textbooks: Even Afghanistan scores better than Pakistan

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Photo: UNICEF/PAKISTAN/Asad Zaidi

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 a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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South Asia

A long way of solidarity: a voice for the voiceless Kashmiris

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Friday prayers in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. © John Isaac

Every year on February 5 Pakistan observes Kashmir Solidarity Day. It aims to demonstrate Pakistan’s support and solidarity with the people of Indian-occupied Kashmir, and their continuing liberation struggle, and to honor Kashmiri martyrs who sacrificed their lives fighting for Kashmir’s independence.

Every year, on Kashmir Solidarity Day, Pakistan expresses its political, moral, and diplomatic support for the righteous fight of our Kashmiri brothers and becomes its voice in the international forums.

Kashmir’s discord carries historical as well as contemporary events that hinder its political future.

Historical account of the humiliation of Kashmir’s people

The history of conflict dates back to 1947. In the June 3 plan, the princely state offered a choice between India and Pakistan. Maharaja Hari Singh deceived Pakistan and ceded Kashmir to India through a standstill agreement, which sparked an uprising of Pashtun tribesmen and the Hindu nationalists and RSS to organize a program against Muslims, killing between 20,000 and 100,000 Muslims. On October 27, 1947, Indian troops landed in Kashmir to fight against the Pashtuns and the local armies; this led to the first India-Pakistan war. During the war, India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, promised a referendum: “The fate of Jammu and Kashmir is ultimately decided by the people; the pledge we have given is not only to the people of Kashmir but also to the world.” “We will not and cannot back out of it.”

India referred the dispute to the United Nations a little more than two months later. A resolution passed on August 13, 1948, asking both nations to withdraw their forces; once that happened, a referendum was to be held, allowing the people of Kashmir to decide their political future. But the Indian troops were never withdrawn, and the referendum never happened. On January 1, 1949, the ceasefire was agreed upon, and Kashmir became a disputed territory. Over the next 70 years, India and Pakistan fought three wars over Kashmir.

In Indian-administrated Kashmir, India maintains around 600,000 troops in Kashmir, who have committed human rights violations like rape, torture, and enforced disappearances that continue today. The number of people killed in Kashmir is estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000, which shows the ruthlessness of the so-called largest democracy in the world.

Situation after the abolishment of articles 370 and 35A

On August 5, 2019, the Indian government abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, which granted Jammu and Kashmir a special status and autonomy. The Indian government enforced a curfew, disrupted communication connections, arrested political leaders, and deployed extra soldiers in the area, generating widespread resentment and demonstrations.

Since the abolition of Articles 370 and 35A, human rights abuses and violations in Kashmir have increased significantly, with claims of widespread mass arrests, torture, and extrajudicial executions by Indian security personnel. The Indian government has also restricted freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, making it impossible for citizens to openly express their thoughts and report on the state of the area.

In addition, the Indian government has been accused of fostering demographic changes in the area through the settlement of Hindu migrants, which has resulted in a fall in the percentage of the Muslim population and degradation of the Kashmiri people’s distinctive cultural and religious identity.

International human rights groups have shown concern about the situation in Kashmir and demanded an independent investigation into the reported human rights breaches and abuses. About 87 civilians have been killed by the Indian forces since the abrogation of Article 370. The international community has also advocated for a peaceful settlement to the issue that takes the Kashmiri people’s rights and interests into consideration.

The situation in Kashmir remains severe, and the continuous violence and human rights violations continue to provide the international community with a formidable task. The region’s political future is still unknown, and a sustainable resolution to the war has not yet been found.

Pakistan’s Advocacy for Kashmir

Pakistan has made several attempts to resolve the ongoing conflict in Kashmir and has sought international backing for its stance on the matter. Pakistan has repeatedly discussed the Kashmir issue at the United Nations and other international forums, stressing the need for a peaceful settlement of the conflict based on the self-determination principle and the right of the Kashmiri people to choose their destiny. Pakistan has also made diplomatic attempts to garner international support for its viewpoint, notably via the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Non-Aligned Movement.

Pakistan has also endeavored to provide political, diplomatic, and moral assistance for the Kashmiri resistance movement. India has accused Pakistan of financing terrorism in the area based on information that Pakistan supports separatist organizations in the region. Pakistan has denied these allegations and advocated for a peaceful settlement according to UN Resolution 47 (1948), which calls for a ceasefire, and UN Resolution 51 (1948), which calls for a plebiscite to be held in the region to determine the will of the Kashmiri people.

Despite these attempts, the situation in Kashmir remains unresolved, and a permanent resolution to the conflict has not yet been reached. The issue remains a significant source of conflict between India and Pakistan and a problem for the international community.

Conclusion:

Kashmir’s political future remains uncertain and is the subject of ongoing discussion and negotiation between India and Pakistan, as well as international engagement.

Currently, the territory is split between India and Pakistan, with India administering the greater part and Pakistan the smaller. The Line of Control (LoC), which divides the two managed territories, has often been the scene of tension and bloodshed.

There have been appeals for a peaceful conclusion that takes the rights and interests of the Kashmiri people into consideration. Some have suggested the concept of “self-determination,” in which the people of Kashmir would have the right to choose their destiny through a referendum or a negotiated solution between India and Pakistan.

Kashmir’s political future is unpredictable and vulnerable to the continuous dynamics of the war as well as the shifting political and strategic objectives of the major regional countries. The international community still has a big part to play in finding a solution, and India, Pakistan, and the other countries in the area are likely to have to be involved and support any lasting solution.

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Sri Lankans deserve a clean break from the past

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The decision of former president Maithripala Sirisena to run for president pits two unpopular, establishment candidates against one another. With both Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe involved in past political turmoil and the current economic crisis, Sri Lankans deserve a clean break.

While a presidential election cannot be held until 2024, the Sri Lankan Electoral Commission recently announced local elections for February. With no popular mandate and as the only member of his party, President Wickremesinghe is expected to face an embarrassing defeat in the poll, but it is unlikely to bring down the government.

The announcement that Sirisena would run as president comes at a pivotal time for Sri Lankans.

Wickremesinghe warned this week that the Sri Lankan economy could contract by up to 4% this year, after shrinking 11% last year.

Last year, the island nation descended into turmoil, with an economic collapse leading to its worst crisis in years. Foreign currency shortages, runaway inflation and a recession left the government unable to make debt repayments and left Sri Lankans desperately short of food and fuel.

This led to unprecedented unrest, particularly in the capital Colombo, resulting in the deaths of protesters and police, with hundreds more injured or detained. The protests culminated in the storming and occupation of the presidential palace, forcing Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country, with Wickremesinghe replacing him as president.

Sirisena has a chequered history in Sri Lankan politics.

Sirisena was part of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet before defecting to the opposition and winning a surprise election victory against Rajapaksa in 2015.

As President, Sirisena formed a close partnership with Wickremsinghe, appointing him Prime Minister, before the two spectacularly fell out. This culminated in the sacking of Wickremesinghe in 2018, replacing him with Mahinda Rajapaksa. At the time, Wickremesinghe claimed that the move was “unconstitutional”.

This led to a constitutional crisis and power struggle between Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa and Sirisena, with the former President dissolving parliament and calling snap elections. Sirisena then decided to not seek re-election, leaving office in early 2019. He was replaced as president by Mahinda’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Recently, the Sri Lankan supreme court ordered Sirisena and several other top government, police and intelligence officials to pay millions of rupees in compensation to the victims of the 2019 Easter bombings in Colombo. The court found that Sirisena, as former president, ignored multiple warnings about an imminent terrorist attack weeks before the deadly event took place.

But Wickremesinghe is also no saint.

Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister, won a parliamentary vote with the backing of the Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July 2022. For this reason, he is accused of owing his position to the family.

Upon gaining the presidency, Wickremesinghe immediately cracked down on protesters, condemning the protests as “against the law” and calling protesters “fascists”. Under his watch, more than 140 protesters have been arrested and its leaders driven into hiding.

In August 2022, the United Nations condemned his government’s crackdown on protesters. The UN also criticised the repeated use of emergency measures, such as curfews, calling them a “misuse of emergency measures”.

The president has also been accused of delaying this poll, claiming the economically crippled country cannot afford to spend 10 billion rupees on a local election. However, the election commission decided to proceed despite the president’s request. Nonetheless, this raises doubts about Wickremesinghe’s respect for the democratic process.

What Sri Lankans desperately need is political stability and good economic management so the country can dig its way out of its worst crisis since independence.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe offer neither. The former is struggling to finalise a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund and both are notorious for poor political decision making and unpopular with a public desperate for change.

Therefore, Sri Lankans are faced with two establishment candidates who only offer more of the same.

The solution, at least for the time being, is for Wickremesinghe to call a presidential election so the next president has a clear mandate by the people. This will assist in forming a stable government and in bailout negotiations with the IMF.

Power also needs to be decentralised through ambitious political reforms that allow for wider participation and decision making in parliament. While, admittedly, this would be difficult under both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, it is the first step in dealing with corruption and nepotism in Sri Lankan politics.

Presidential candidates serious about solving the countries problems also need to focus on key issues, such as rebuilding the economy, accountability for human rights and rebuilding political integrity and public trust.

Only once this is achieved, and Sri Lanka has shed itself of its dysfunctional political past, will it be able to recover.

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South Asia

A Hybrid Political System for Pakistan: A Proposal

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The political system of Pakistan is an amalgamation of Islamic, British, and Indian influences, shaped by a multifaceted array of religious, ethnic, and regional factors, making it a culturally rich and ever-changing landscape. Pakistan is renowned for its powerful military establishment, which has traditionally wielded significant influence in determining its political direction. The nation’s political history is characterized by cycles of military rule, punctuated by several coups, followed by phases of democratic rule, though the military has continued to exert a significant degree of influence in the country’s politics. Furthermore, Pakistan has had to contend with the pernicious threat of extremism, with various militant groups operating within its borders and perpetrating terrorist attacks, which have destabilized the nation’s political, social, and economic stability.

This article aims to shed light on the challenges faced by the political system in Pakistan, specifically concerning the current political turmoil the country is experiencing. It also suggests a potential solution to stabilize the system and bring about a revolution in the way politics is conducted in Pakistan

The challenges faced by Pakistan’s democracy are compounded by the elite classes’ actions. The country is currently facing significant upheaval, which can be attributed to several factors. The lack of solid democratic institutions, frequent military takeovers, and the involvement of powerful military and civilian elites are among the underlying causes of the country’s political instability. Additionally, ethnic and regional conflicts, poverty, and economic growth issues further exacerbated political instability. The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, as well as political unrest in neighboring countries, have also had an impact on the country. Furthermore, Pakistan’s history of military control, political corruption, and a lack of a deeply ingrained democratic culture have all contributed to the volatility in its political system.

The current political quagmire that plagues Pakistan is multifaceted, primarily stemming from a dearth of political acumen and a paucity of commitment on the part of leaders to prioritize the exigencies of the populace over their own personal and factional interests. This has led to a diminution of public confidence in the political system and government officials. Furthermore, the military’s prolonged political intervention and sway history has exacerbated a lack of democratic stability and accountability. Another critical conundrum that has impeded the country’s political evolution is the preponderance of corruption and nepotism in every government agency, rendering it difficult for citizens to repose trust in government officials. As a result, there is a burgeoning loss of faith in institutions of all varieties, with people losing trust in the government, corporations, and political leaders.

Furthermore, the failure of successive governments to address the issue of corruption has further undermined public trust in the political system. The permeation of corrupt practices in every government institution has made it difficult for citizens to have faith in government officials, leading to a general disillusionment with the political system. Additionally, the lack of transparency and accountability in government operations has enabled corrupt officials to operate with impunity, further eroding the public’s trust in the political system. The aforementioned issues have resulted in a political climate marked by a lack of stability and continuity, hindering the country’s economic and social development. It is imperative that the political class and other stakeholders work towards addressing these issues to ensure that the political system can effectively serve the people’s needs and promote the country’s long-term stability and prosperity.

Proposing A New Way to get stability in Political System?

A hybrid political system combines characteristics of many political systems, such as democracy and autocracy. Two examples are a semi-presidential system, which combines a prime minister and a president, and a federal system, which combines a central government with regional administrations. Hybrid systems can also include components of other kinds of democracy, such as a parliamentary system combined with a robust presidential system. These systems are frequently viewed as a compromise between competing political ideologies or as a means of balancing the strengths and shortcomings of various systems

If the official replaces the current political system with a hybrid one, it could be very beneficial. One of the main advantages of a hybrid system is that it allows for a balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government. In a presidential system, the executive branch is separate from the legislative branch, with the president having a lot of power. In a parliamentary system, however, the executive branch is accountable to the legislative branch. In a hybrid system, the executive branch has some independence from the legislative branch but is still responsible for it. This helps to prevent too much power from being concentrated in one person or group and also helps to protect citizens’ rights and to avoid abuse of power.

An additional benefit of implementing a hybrid system is that it may facilitate more efficient decision-making by leveraging the strengths of both presidential and parliamentary systems. In a presidential system, the separation of powers can result in stalemates and prolonged indecision, while in a parliamentary system, the government can swiftly collapse if it loses the legislature’s support. A hybrid system, on the other hand, can offer a balance of stability and agility, allowing for more prompt decision-making while maintaining the accountability of the executive branch. Furthermore, considering Pakistan’s history of military involvement in politics, a hybrid system can provide a mechanism to hold the military accountable to the civilian administration and reduce the likelihood of military intervention.

It is imperative to acknowledge that a hybrid system may not be the ultimate remedy for all of Pakistan’s issues, and its successful operation would require meticulous planning and execution. Nevertheless, this system could potentially provide a glimpse of sustained stability in Pakistan’s political landscape, and it is incumbent upon the authorities to consider this system as a viable option to circumvent further obstacles.

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