Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Freedom of Education vs. Censorship

On 3 June, the Daily Star reported that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education has made "strong recommendations for imposing a ban" on "unapproved" textbooks in madrasas. In addition, all madrasas would have to have a picture of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the offices, to properly observe national holidays and memorial days, and to ensure that the national anthem is sung everyday.
I have no problem with most of these points. In most public buildings in the United States you will find pictures of the U.S. President and Vice President. In grade school we were required to say the U.S. "pledge of allegiance," and of course we observed all national holidays and memorial days.

The tricky part: is the funding for these madrasas on the government's coin? Are they run by private groups? By NGOs? The answer is yes to all three. In which case, many of these recommendations could be construed to be an infringement on civil rights of the private groups to set policy in their institutions.

We should not forget that this is not only an issue of civil rights but also of Bangladesh's national security. It is no secret that most Islamists find their ideological underpinnings during study at a madrasa. But being an Islamist does not necessarily lead to bombs, guns, and murder. On the other hand, calling for the dissolution of the current government and political in place of the one you want could be construed as treason. Tricky.

The middle ground is probably to install these recommendations in government managed and funded madrasas. These points should be a prerequisite to government money or service, but at the same time madrasas funded or managed by other groups or individuals should be routinely monitored by the community. For instance, engage the parents in actively discussing the child's education. What did you learn today? What do you think about it? Finally, the government needs to do something about the actual items that cause violent Islamism to take root in the first place - unequal development, corruption, disillusionment, the like.

As for the text books, having not read them (I probably should) I lean towards the ban. If the book includes incendiary statements that promote murder and violence then the books should be banned, especially in the madrasas - government funded/run or not. The reasoning is that these ideas are totally contrary to the spirit of Bangladeshi (and traditional) parliamentary democracy. However, if the book never goes that far but insinuates that a better government would be one based on religious law, then allow it. But any sensible administrator should also encourage discussion between the teacher and the pupils. Why would it be better? How would it be worse? What would be different? What would be similar? In this way the mind decides for itself what to believe. Right now, I'm not entirely convinced this is the way the conversation works in the madrasas that indoctrinate violent Islamists (or any religious school preaching violence on others, for that matter).

The U.S. government might not think it has much stake in this debate at first glance - but it most certainly does. The path that Bangladesh chooses to trend here is critical to the development of the still young democracy. If you go too far into the realm of control and censorship, you risk promoting the environment you are seemingly trying to avoid. If you err too far to the other side, you risk legitimizing the violence and the message.

Finally, the U.S. should take note that textbook debate is occuring not but 100 km from its own capital.

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