English, education and society

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DISCOURSES about the material value of English as a global language are ubiquitous. What is probably less known is that English is also widely used as an ideological tool. Think of the colonial exploitation of English. An Australian scholar aptly noted that had it not been for colonial rule, we would not have had English, English language teaching and English literature in their present peak and glory. This may sound like a radical statement, but would you disagree?

English was also adopted to spread Christianity and for Christian missionary activities. The teaching of English as a missionary language has increased in recent years; in fact, the church has become an “alternative space” for teaching English. Needless to say, English has been entangled in race, racism, and other forms of linguistic and social discrimination in many places.

These are concrete examples of the ideological use of English, but I have not added the most remarkable. After 9/11, the US-led West deployed English as a weapon to wage the so-called Global War on Terror. It was believed that English would weed out radical tendencies and behaviors among young Muslims, as the language would expose them to Western liberal and progressive views and ideals. Thus, English can work like a double-edged sword: it helps to spread one religion (Christianity) and prevents the spread of another (Islam) in its so-called radical form.

This portrayal of the Western ideological perspective on English is one-sided, as it fails to recognize the paradigm shift that has occurred in the language. A unique feature of English as a global language is that its non-native speakers outnumber its native speakers. More communication in English now takes place between its non-native speakers than between its native speakers. These significant demographic shifts have changed the face of English. There are now many English people in the world. As there are native varieties of English such as British, American and Australian, so do non-native varieties such as Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Malay. Non-native speakers have localized and appropriated English; they force language to speak their reality and represent their experiences. They coin new words, invent new grammar rules and assign new functions to English. It is their language, as much as it is the language of its native speakers.

What happened to the ideological potential of English in the hands of its non-native speakers? In particular, how have Muslim societies reacted to English in the post-9/11 world? Do they recreate the ideological context of English, as they bring innovations in English and the use of English?

Muslim societies made significant reforms in education and English teaching in the aftermath of 9/11. These reforms sought to ensure that students study “more English and less Islam” in line with Western demands and pressures. Madrasahs have been targeted for this linguistic intervention, particularly in South Asia. In Southeast Asia, there have been programs such as English for Ulema to represent moderate views of Islam.

At the same time, there were attempts to establish English as an Islamic language. English has become a default choice for spreading Islam in a globalized world. Recently, a colleague from the University of Dhaka published an article in an Oxford journal in which he observed that the Qumi Madrassah community was less interested in the material value of English. However, they were aware of the role of English in the spread of Islam, the colleague noted.

What is the place of English in education in Bangladesh from an ideological point of view?

My ongoing research allows me to observe that while English has functioned as a tool for the secularization of mainstream education, it has also been used as a tool for the de-secularization of madrasa education. I would of course question this so-called de-secularization, because it has only created a facade of religiosity using the English language. Indeed, English was also introduced to secularize the teaching of madrassas.

Secularization of ordinary education

MAINSTREAM education in Bangladesh, which caters to over 80% of the school population, is secular. The secular design and purpose can be illustrated by examining English textbooks produced by the National Curriculum and Textbook Board. For my research, I looked at all of these books from year 1 to year 9-10. My analysis shows that the books presented an inclusive society without referring to any religious identity of the nation. The people and names that are used in different texts are secular people, who belong to different religious, ethnic and gender groups. The reader may struggle to find references to Islam or Muslims. Muslim names such as Mohammad or Abdul were avoided. Islamic greetings such as Assalamu alaikum, which have become part of local cultural practice, are not found anywhere. The things the people in the books do and talk about, the practices they engage in, the likes and dislikes they have, the hopes and aspirations they express show secular ideals. Although some secular intellectuals and political authorities have expressed concern over the increase in the number of women wearing hijab in the country, contrary to social conditions, no image of the women included in the books are shown as wearing this Muslim dress. . . A few exceptions I found: a middle-aged rickshaw puller wearing a topi and a child depicted praying. But none of these images are related to extended texts or teaching and learning activities.

The society depicted in the books is secular. Whether this is a realistic picture of life and society in Bangladesh is another matter.

De-secularization of medersas

SINCE 2015, the textbooks of English as well as the textbook for Bangladesh and world studies have been used in the teaching of madrasas at the ibtedaye and dakhil levels. This could have presented a curricular challenge for education authorities: how can they use a set of secular textbooks in faith-based education? The public authorities have developed an educational innovation in a digital world. This is what I would call ‘the Photoshop engineering of the curriculum’. Authorities might have found this digital engineering of textbooks cost-effective, efficient and appropriate for teaching madrasas.

What is this curriculum engineering?

Authorities have made “revisions” and “modifications” to secular textbooks in an effort to make them relevant to madrassas. The objective is to de-secularize secularized textbooks. As an educational researcher, I was interested in revisions that aimed to bring about ideological transformation—from secularization to de-secularization.

So I opened the two digital versions of the same textbook – for example, the Year 1 books for general education and madrassah – on two screens of my desktop computer and compared them at the level of words, sentences and pictures.

I found three types of modifications that were made in textbooks for their use in madrassahs. First, most of the pictures of people in the madrasah version were covered in head coverings – hijab for women and topi for men. These head coverings are placed on people of all ages, children as well as adults. If the secularization of textbooks demanded that headgear not be used as a religious dress code, de-secularization can be achieved by putting on headgear. This de-secularization was accomplished by photoshop engineering. Of course, not all image heads can be covered, from a practical point of view.

The second type of modification consists of changing the institution – from school to madrasa – in the texts. This would have been achieved by using the Find and Replace function on Microsoft Word. So if a particular text in the textbook said “My first day at the new school was interesting”, it became “My first day at the new madrassah was interesting” in the Madrasah edition. No other changes were made, regardless of the topic.

The second type of revisions also includes the changing of people’s names – non-Muslim names in textbooks are given Muslim names. So in the madrassah edition Apala becomes Nusrat, Arun becomes Aslam, Ashish becomes Sabbir, Bina becomes Rehana and Ananda becomes Abdullah. Again, no further changes were deemed necessary. No matter what people are talking about or doing – celebrating birthdays or singing or dancing – changing names was considered sufficient for the use of books in the madrasa classroom.

The third type of revisions include the use of the Islamic greeting “Assalamu alaikum” in madrassah books which is not used in school textbooks, obviously for secular reasons. Assalamu alaikum is found in the Year 1 and Year 7 books, once in each. Another related change that was made on one occasion is to change the ‘folk songs’ in the textbook to ‘hamd and nat’ in the madrassah edition. One might have assumed (wrongly) that folk songs were not sanctioned by Islam.

De-secularize or secularize?

As a product of traditional secular education, I have limited knowledge of Islam and Islamic rules. However, I cannot help but make a few observations as an educator with a Muslim name. The changes made by the authorities are welcome, as the intention may have been to show respect and sensitivity towards the religious sector. Whether the changes are sufficient to make the textbooks suitable for teaching madrasas can be debated, but I have no interest in such debates. However, what questions me are the presuppositions of Islam that have guided the curriculum engineering. The (in)intentional message communicated by cosmetic revisions is that Islam is all about covering the head and, occasionally, using Islamic greetings; madrasa students, and for that matter religious people, can do anything that lay people do, as long as their heads are covered, among other things.

If the processes and outcomes of curriculum engineering were appropriate for Madrasah education, we could hypothetically take a conventional Madrasah book, remove head coverings from all images, remove Islamic greetings, and change names. The revised book should then be adapted to mainstream secular education.

But I doubt that such a book will ever be accepted by advocates and administrators of secular education. And I know why things work one way and not the other.

Dr. Obaidul Hamid works at the University of Queensland in Australia. He researches language, education and society in developing countries.

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