Book Review: Islamisation of
Pakistani Social Studies Textbooks
By Yoginder Sikand
26 March, 2009
Name of the Book: Islamisation of Pakistani Social Studies Textbooks
Author: Yvette Claire Roser
Publisher: Rupa & Co
Price Rs. 195
Contrary to what professional historians might claim, there is really nothing as an objective, unbiased and completely accurate writing of history. After all, not everything, even of significance, of what happened in the past can possibly be included in a text, and history book writers have to pick and choose from past events that they deem fit be recorded. The very process of picking and choosing from the past is determined, among other factors, by the subjective biases of the history writer as well as his or her own social and institutional location. Then, history writing is not simply about narrating the past but also involves a certain element of evaluating it. Here, again, this is strongly determined by the personal biases and preference of the individual historian.
The element of bias is greatly exacerbated when history textbooks are—as they are in almost every country today—commissioned by the state. The state wishes to mould its citizens in a particular way, to make them what it considers as ‘good’ and ‘law-abiding’ citizens, who have completely internalized the underlying logic and ideology of the state. The state, in its capacity of representative of a country’s ruling class, seeks to impose through state-sponsored history texts the hegemonic ideas of this class upon its citizenry. It is thus not surprising that such texts generally parrot the state-centric view of history that seeks to bestow legitimacy on the state and the country’s ruling class and ‘normalise’ their logic and world-view.
This incisive critique of state-sponsored social science textbooks in Pakistan highlights the convoluted politics of historiography and what this means for the production of a ‘social commonsense’ for a state’s citizenry. Although Roser does not say it in so many words, the current turbulent political scenario in Pakistan, in particular the rise of radical Islamist forces in the country, cannot be seen as inseparable from the narrow political agenda that the Pakistani state, ever since its formation, has consistently sought to pursue as is reflected in the social science textbooks that it has commissioned, and through which it has sought to impose its own ideology on its people.
Ross’s study focuses on the textbooks used in Pakistani school for the compulsory subject called ‘Pakistan Studies’, which was introduced in the reign of the American-backed military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in the mid-1970s. Pakistan Studies replaced the teaching of History and Geography, and was moulded in such a fashion as to instill in students an undying and unquestioning loyalty to the official ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ (called the nazariya-e Pakistan, in Urdu). This ideology, questioning which is considered a punishable crime in the country, is based on the far-fetched and completely bankrupt notion of the Muslims and Hindus of the pre-Partition Indian subcontinent as constituting two homogeneous and wholly irreconcilable ‘nations’. (Incidentally, this is the same perverse logic that underlies radical Hindutva in India). It claims that Muslims and Hindus have never been able to live amicably together, that they have always been opposed to each other, that they share nothing in common, and that, hence, it was but natural that Pakistan should come into being for the sake of the Muslims of South Asia.
There are several defining and characteristic features of the Pakistani social science textbooks that Rosser examines. Firstly, as she notes, their extreme anti-Indianism. This is a reflection of the fact that the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’, indeed the very rationale for the creation and continued existence of the state of Pakistan, is premised on the notion of undying and perpetual hatred of and opposition to India. India thus comes to be presented as viscerally opposed to Pakistan and as constituting a mortal threat to its very existence. In this way, a form of Pakistani nationalism is sought to be fostered through the texts that is hyper-chauvinistic, and one that is based on a constant reinforcement of an almost crippling sense of being besieged by what is projected as an ‘evil’ neighbor.
Secondly, and linked to the anti-Indianism that pervades these texts, are the repeated negative and hostile references to the Hindus and their faith. Hinduism is portrayed and projected in wholly negative terms, as if lacking any appreciable elements at all. Its followers are presented in a similarly unflattering way: as allegedly mean and cruel, and constantly scheming against Muslims and their faith. Hindus, like Muslims, thus come to be presented in strikingly stereotypical terms: the former as virulently hostile enemies, and the latter as brave soldiers in the path of God. They are portrayed as two solid, monolithic blocs, and as being without any internal differences whatsoever, of class, class, gender, region, language, political orientation and ethnicity. The only identity that they are projected as possessing is that of religion, which is presented in starkly reified terms that often have little resonance with empirical reality. In the process, the diverse, often contradictory, interpretations, expressions and the lived realities of Islam and Hinduism in South Asia are completely ignored in favour of extreme literalist, ‘orthodox’ and textual understandings. ‘Popular’ religious traditions, such as certain forms of Sufism and Bhakti, that bring people of diverse communal backgrounds together, are totally ignored, because they obviously stridently contradict the claims of the ‘two-nation’ theory.
Thirdly, the textbooks present Pakistani history as synonymous with the history of political conquests by successive Muslim rulers, starting with the Arab commander Muhammad bin Qasim in the mid seventh century. All these invaders and rulers, so the books piously claim, were goaded by a powerful sense of religious mission to establish ‘Islamic’ rule in the region. This alleged religious aspiration of theirs is presented as having finally culminated in the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Contrary to what is popularly known about him, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the ideological founder of Pakistan, is presented as an ‘orthodox’ Muslim, allegedly inspired by the vision of establishing an ‘Islamic’ state run by Muslim clerics—something which was not the case at all. The fact that most of the Muslim rulers and conquerors that these texts lionise might actually have been inspired by less noble motives—to plunder or rule—is, of course, conveniently ignored. Religion—in this case Islam—thus comes to be seen and projected as the sole motor of history, with other factors, such as power and economics, having, at best, only a minor role to play. The history of South Asia before Muhammad bin Qasim is hardly mentioned at all, although it was in what is Pakistan today that the Indus Valley Civilisation flourished, that the invading Aryans composed the Vedas and that Buddhism led to a great flourishing of various arts and sciences.
In other words, every effort is made in the textbooks to present Pakistan as an extension of ‘Muslim’ West Asia, instead of a part of the Indic-dominated South Asia. Not surprisingly, as Rosser observes, the texts single out particular historical figures who are known for their battles against Hindu rulers as heroes, among these the most important being Muhammad bin Qasim, Mamhud Ghaznavi and Aurangzeb. Other Muslim rulers, most notably Akbar, who sought to reconcile Hindus and Muslims and promote a generous ecumenism, are either totally ignored or else reviled as alleged ‘enemies of Islam’. Furthermore, these figures, of both ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, are isolated from their historical contexts, leading to biography turning into hagiography or demonology, as the case might be, in order to serve the agenda of the advocates of the ‘two nation’ theory.
The same holds true in the texts’ depictions of certain key Muslim religious figures. Thus, ‘orthodox’ ulema or Islamic clerics who stressed the claim of the inferiority of the Hindus and advised Muslim rulers to take harsh measures against them are hailed as heroes of Islam, while others, including many Sufis, who sought to preach love and tolerance between Muslims and others and preached an ethical monotheism transcending narrowly-inscribed boundaries of community, are conveniently left out or else branded as ‘un-Islamic’.
A fourth characteristic feature of these textbooks is their distinctly anti-democratic character. They purport to tell the story of the Muslims of South Asia from the point of view of Pakistan’s ruling elites. In the process, history comes to be presented as simply a long list of battles and other ‘achievements’ (whether real or imaginary) of a long chain of Muslim rulers. ‘Ordinary’ people have no voice, being completely invisiblised in these texts. It is as if history is made only by rulers, and that the histories of ‘ordinary’ people are not worth recording or commemorating. It would seem as if the writers of these books are wholly ignorant of new developments in writing ‘peoples’ or ‘subaltern’ histories.
The starkly elitist bias of the texts is also reflected in the fact that they almost completely ignore perspectives of ethnic groups other than Pakistan’s dominant Punjabi and Muhajir communities. This is hardly surprising, since, as Rosser notes, most of these texts have been penned by authors who belong to these two communities. She writes that the absence of the perspectives and historical experiences of the numerically smaller ethnic and regional communities of Pakistan, such as the Baluchis and Sindhis, also has serious implications for policy making, for the demand of smaller provinces for regional peace in South Asia and equitable local development is not sufficiently appreciated and incorporated in national policies. This, Rosser comments, is reflected in the great ‘tension between official history manufactured in Islamabad and the historical perspectives of regional ethnic groups’ (p.4).
The anti-democratic thrust of these texts is also reflected in what Rosser describes as ‘a radically restrictive brand of Islamic exclusivism’ that they project and propagate. The sort of Islam that these texts seek to promote is premised on the notion and dream of Muslim political hegemony and a deep-rooted sense of the innate inferiority of people of other faiths. This is—and this is important to note—just one version of Islam among many, and one which Muslims who believe in an inclusive version of their faith would vehemently oppose. However, the texts present this, what Rosser calls ‘authoritarian’, ‘legalistic’ and ‘ritualistic’, brand of Islam as normative and defining, and completely reject alternate, competing, more democratic and humanistic interpretations of the faith (p.9).
Rosser’s findings are of critical importance, particularly in the context of present developments in Pakistan, which is witnessing the alarming growth of radical Islamist groups, impelled by a version of Islam very similar to the one these texts uphold. Obviously, explanations of the growing threat of radical Islamism in Pakistan cannot ignore the crucial role of these texts, which are compulsory reading for all Pakistani students, thus playing a central role in moulding their minds and worldviews. The texts are also a reflection of, as well as a cause for, the pathetic state of social science research and discourse in present-day Pakistan.
Rosser’s Indian readers need not have much cause to be self-congratulatory, however. Although historiography in India is certainly more sophisticated in many senses than in Pakistan, a significant section of Indian history writers, particularly of the Hindutva brand, are no different from those Pakistani writers whose texts Rosser examines. Indeed, they speak the same language of hatred and communal supremacy, propelling the same tired, debunked myth of Hindus and Muslims being perpetually at odds with each other. Likewise, they are both profoundly anti-democratic, having no space for the voices and aspirations of socially, culturally and economically oppressed groups, upon whose enforced silence is premised the artifice of the ‘nation’ (‘Islamic’ or ‘Hindu’, as the case might be), whose sole representative ruling elites claim to be.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore.