Monday, February 06, 2012

Kabul puts history on hold to stem conflicts

KABUL: In a country where the recent past has unfolded like a war epic, officials think they have found a way to teach Afghanistan's history without widening the fractures among long-quarrelling ethnic and political groups: Leave out the past four decades.
A series of government-issued textbooks funded by the United States and several foreign aid organisations do just that, pausing history in 1973. There is no mention of the Soviet war, the mujahideen, the Taleban or the US military presence. In their efforts to promote a single national identity, Afghan leaders have deemed their own history too controversial.
'Our recent history tears us apart. We've created a curriculum based on the older history that brings us together, with figures universally recognised as being great,' said Mr Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan's Education Minister.
'These are the first books in decades that are de-politicised and de-ethnicised.'
High school students across the country are expected to receive the textbooks in time for the school year this spring. The books are the only ones approved for use in public classrooms as part of the new 'de-politicised curriculum'.
Elementary and middle school textbooks, which also conclude history lessons in the early 1970s, have been distributed over the past several years.
As Western leaders look to wind down their part in the protracted war, the inability of Afghans to agree on a basic historical record casts doubt on a much more complex exercise that is critical to the country's future - the creation of a government that would unite Afghanistan's disparate groups.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union printed books that stressed communism's virtues and the importance of Marxist theory. During the last years of the Cold War, the US spent millions on Afghan textbooks filled with violent images and talk of jihad, part of a covert effort to incite resistance to the Soviet occupation.
During the Taleban's reign in the 1990s, conservative Islamic texts were imported from Pakistan. In western Afghanistan, Iranian textbooks that openly praised Teheran-backed militant groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas were for years distributed in public schools.
When educators, scholars and politicians gathered to overhaul the curriculum, beginning in 2002, they were intent on undoing the politics of Afghan historiography. But they could not agree on how to address the country's descent into civil war or its various insurgent groups.
Eventually, they suggested that the only solution would be to omit the period after King Mohammed Zahir Shah, whose ouster in 1973 ushered in an era of chronic political instability.
Despite the broad consensus, some Afghan scholars and educators have pushed back, claiming the new textbooks mark an abdication of the ministry's academic responsibility.
'This will be the biggest treason against the people of Afghanistan. It will be a hindrance to all of our spiritual and material gains over the last four decades,' said Kabul University's history professor Mir Ahmad Kamawal.
But Mr Wardak offered a contrarian view. 'We're talking about community-building through education, and that includes the insurgency. This curriculum needs to appeal to all Afghans,' he said.
'The curriculum is a national one, based on Islamic principles. It's not just for Pashtuns or Tajiks or Hazaras. The curriculum will bring us all under one roof. It will encourage brotherhood and unity.'