- Aug 12, 2015
Textbook changes raise Bangla alarm
Dhaka, Jan. 23:
Bangladesh's education ministry was preparing to print the 2017 editions of its standard Bengali textbooks when a group of conservative religious scholars demanded the removal of 17 poems and stories they deemed "atheistic".
By the time the books were distributed to schools on January 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 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 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 madarsas.
That religious organisations 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 US. 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 extremist 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. Extremist organisations, analysts say, are so skilled at mobilising 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 organisation 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 realised, '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 yesterday, 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."
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE