By Obed Pasha
Thefridaytimes: March 1, 2017
The latest addition to the long list of absurdities espoused by our ruling classes came from MNA Naeema Kishwar Khan a couple weeks back. She proposed and defended a bill that would make it compulsory to teach Arabic in all government schools from grade 1. The logic behind this bill is confounding and enigmatic: the members of parliament believe that teaching Arabic to children from an early age will help them interpret the Holy Quran properly and bring terrorism down. Another Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf member of parliament argued that learning Arabic would help students acquire jobs (presumably in the Middle East).
Let me ask the learned members a few questions: What is the ‘true’ and ‘correct’ interpretation of the Holy Quran? Which Arabic scholar (let alone a lay person) understands the true Islam? Do Ayman Al-Zawahiry, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and their numerous followers not know Arabic? Most forces engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Syria are Arabic-speakers – from the Alawite, to all shades of Shia, Sunni, and Wahabi groups. Why does knowing Arabic not stop them from turning into terrorists? Arabic is taught in nearly all the madrassas of Pakistan to children from a very tender age; does that reduce the number of extremists emerging out of these institutions?
But why not? Let’s teach the children Arabic so they will get petro-jobs in the Middle East, let’s teach them Mandarin because China is our best friend, English because it is the international language of commerce, Persian because it was the language of the Mughals, and Spanish because we ruled Spain for a millennium. Let’s teach our kids every single language that they may or may not need, except their own mother tongues – Punjabi, Hindko, Brahui, Pashto, Dhatki, Sindhi, or Sheena. Let’s not teach them the one language, their mother tongue that may actually help reduce tendencies toward terrorism. Let’s not teach them about the pluralism of Bulleh Shah, the universal love of Farid Ganj-e-Shakar, or the folk wisdom or Khawaja Ghulam Farid.
Let’s teach them about Tariq Bin Zyad and Muhammad Bin Qasim, but not about our indigenous heroes like Dulla Bhatti or Rai Ahmed Khan Kharal. Let’s teach the kids to glorify aggressors and plunderers like Ghauri and Ghaznavi, and vilify Ranjit Singh and Bhagat Singh. Let’s teach them to idealize everything foreign, and hate everything local. Let’s send them the message that the languages and cultures of their parents do not deserve to be taught in schools, and that they need to learn Urdu, English, Arabic and Chinese to earn dignity in society. Even the Urdu we teach at schools is Persian-ized to a ridiculous extent. Tell me, how is ‘Afzoon-gar’ a better word to teach than ‘Amplifier’ in government schools in Punjab?
It is ironic how much we care about imposing new languages in schools, while we neglect school infrastructure, teacher recruitment and training, and curriculum modernization. Our crumbling education system forbids students to ask questions, to think differently, or to be creative. Instead of simplifying pedagogy to make students understand what they are being taught, we focus on rote learning and deliberately complicate instruction to limit knowledge. We do not allow our children to think for themselves, and wonder why they are turning into terrorists? The science and mathematics that we teach in our schools is out of date and the history we teach is false. Brutal physical punishment in public schools is reserved for students from low-income backgrounds, which ensures that they develop an aversion to knowledge attainment and limit their socio-economic advancement. But let’s forget about all this, and teach them a new language.
There is a plethora of scientific research that proves that students learn better when taught in their mother tongue. Students not only are able to absorb the material better, but also develop critical thinking skills. Their school learning is better supported at home when the parents know the language of instruction. Teaching in the mother tongue also promotes equality, accessibility, and inclusion of the marginalized communities. Neglecting all evidence, I wonder which scientific studies our parliamentarians relied on to pronounce that Arabic would help reduce terrorism?
Fighting terrorism requires an equitable distribution of resources, avenues of socio-economic advancement, and cultural sensitivity toward the marginalized. Counter-terrorism is a battle of ideologies and narratives, which can only be won if the state meets people where they are and explains its narratives in their language. I am not sure how Arabic can help in this regard. It is almost certain that the efforts to introduce Arabic in schools will fail as miserably as the absurd attempt of the Sindh government to introduce Mandarin as a medium of instruction floundered a couple of years back. Apart from losing valuable resources in the already resource-starved education system, this initiative will distract our attention from the core issues of education reforms to the outlandish whims of the parliamentarians.
Obed Pasha is lecturer of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ramblingsufi