PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A decade ago, Pakistan’s then-ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, called for a new era of “enlightened moderation” in the country’s public schools.
But just two years after more-secular textbooks arrived here in northwestern Pakistan, politicians and religious scholars are rolling back some of the revisions by limiting students’ exposure to Western theories, academics, scientists and authors — including Helen Keller.
The effort is being led by the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami party, which recently gained more power in a region on the front lines of Pakistan’s effort to curb Islamist extremism and terrorism. A party that wants sharia law in Pakistan again has considerable influence over what 4 million students learn in 28,000 public schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
After Jamaat-e-Islami leaders scrutinized hundreds of pages of textbooks, a story about Keller, a deaf and blind American author and activist, is being removed from ninth-grade lesson plans. Books for first- and second-graders will no longer include photos of a Christmas tree and holiday cards, even though a small Christian community lives here. And inscriptions on textbooks stating “We want peace” are being replaced with religious verses, said a local education official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the matter.
“Pakistan is an Islamic country, and nothing should be taught in our schoolbooks that [is] un-Islamic and against the ideology of Pakistan,” said Zahir Shah, a professor at Islamia University in Peshawar who is leading a review of textbooks for Jamaat-e-Islami.
Although it appears that other provincial leaders could still try to block some of the proposals, the debate shows how hard it will be to change Pakistani school systems that have been shaped by the tide of Islamic fundamentalism that swept the country in the 1970s and 1980s.
Activists worry that the efforts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will make it more difficult to continue revisions in other provinces.
“This is about our nation, our future,” said Sardar Hussain Babak, who served as education minister in the province from 2008 to 2013. “So we are telling them: ‘Don’t again exploit our students in the name of religion.’ ”
Jamaat-e-Islami has recommended more than a dozen textbook changes, including banning images showing women in skirts, jeans and T-shirts. Party members also want to remove Darwin’s theory of evolution from science books so it doesn’t compete with Islamic teachings on creationism.
Jamaat-e-Islami is pushing for the changes even as the province continues to cope with the aftermath of a December terrorist attack that killed 150 students and teachers at a school here. In response to the massacre, Pakistani leaders promised to crack down on extremist views and writings.
But the political dynamics in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s government changed in 2013, the same year that students began using new textbooks.
That May, the moderate Awami National Party (ANP) was ousted from power in provincial elections. The Movement for Justice party, led by former cricket star Imran Khan, won a plurality of provincial assembly seats. Khan then formed a majority coalition with Jamaat-e-Islami, known for its strict interpretation of the Koran.
Jamaat-e-Islami leaders say the power-sharing deal gave them authority over education matters, reviving the power they held nationwide during the 1980s.
When former military ruler Mohammed Zia ul-Haq seized power in a coup in 1977, he formed an alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami and shifted the country toward an ideologically pure version of Islam. Party leaders were given wide latitude over education policy, and the government added Arabic and Islamic studies to the core curriculum.
In 2002, a report commissioned by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute concluded that Pakistani public school textbooks were riddled with errors, were insensitive to religious minorities and incited violence.
Amid international concerns that Pakistani schools could fuel terrorism, Musharraf organized forums on the issue in 2006. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the ANP worked with academics and international aid organizations to make changes to the curriculum.
But Shah said he and other religious scholars now worry that lessons on too many non-Muslim authors, scientists and historians have crept into the textbooks.
So instead of Keller’s 1933 essay “Three Days to See,” which outlines how she would use her vision if given the gift of sight, ninth-graders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will read about Muhammad Iqbal, the education official said. Iqbal was an early 20th-century poet and philosopher who advocated the creation of an independent Pakistani state.
“We want a uniform education policy for the whole of Pakistan and a curriculum that will promote national identity,” Shah said.
Some of the proposed changes, however, go far beyond elevating Muslim figures. Shah said Jamaat-e-Islami is hoping to remove the theory of evolution from textbooks because it is “100 percent in conflict with Koranic teachings.” The education official said it will remain for the 2015-2016 year but will be supplemented by other scientific lessons that better represent an Islamic viewpoint.
It is unclear whether two other Jamaat-e-Islami proposals — ending lessons about population growth and removing references to Western environmental and charitable groups such as Greenpeace and Save the Children — will be enacted.
“Our education policy is clear in that we are making neither a liberal curriculum nor a fundamentalist one,” said Atif Khan, the provincial education minister.
Yet Jamaat-e-Islami leaders clearly are having an impact on the curriculum.
Under the reforms enacted by ANP, a decision was made for “age appropriate” teaching of the history of jihad, which some Muslims interpret to mean a holy war. Jamaat-e-Islami leaders used the term in the 1980s to rally support for mujahideen rebels fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
To limit students’ exposure to violence, initial plans called for lessons about the term “jihad” to be restricted to students in the 11th grade or higher. But Jamaat-e-Islami successfully pushed this year to continue those lessons for students as young as ninth-graders.
Fazal-ur-Rahim Marwat, vice chancellor of Bacha Khan University, Charsadda on the outskirts of Peshawar, said the new changes should worry parents who want to give their children the chance to enjoy the benefits of globalization.
“We have an opportunity to produce some good human beings, some good citizens, Marwat said. “But if we are producing something ideological, then there will be problems.”