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To Secular Bangladeshis, Textbook Changes Are a Harbinger

By Ellen Barry and Julfikar Ali Manik

January 22, 2017

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 centre of Dhaka with a list of demands: punishment for “atheist bloggers,” the destruction of sculptures and mandatory Islamic education, including changes to textbooks.

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.”