English, education and society

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

discourses on the material value of English as a global language are pervasive. What is probably less known is that English is also widely used as an ideological tool. Think about the colonial exploitation of English. An Australian scholar aptly noted that had there been no colonial rule, we would not have had English, English language teaching and English literature in their current height and glory. This may appear a sweeping statement, but would you disagree?

English was also adopted for spreading Christianity and for Christian missionary activities. Teaching English as a missionary language has increased in recent years; in fact, the church has emerged as 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 one. Following 9/11, the US-led West deployed English as a weapon to fight the so-called global war on terror. It was believed that English would eradiate radical tendencies and behaviours among Muslim youths, as the language would expose them to western liberal and progressive views and ideals. Thus, English can work as a double-edged sword: It helps spread one religion (Christianity) and prevents the spread of another (Islam) in its so-called radical form.

This representation of the western ideological perspective on English is one-sided, as it does not recognise the paradigm shift that has happened to the language. One unique feature of English as a world language is that its non-native speakers have outnumbered its native speakers. More communication in English now takes place between its non-native speakers than between its native speakers. These significant demographic developments have changed the face of English.

There are now many Englishes in the world. As there are varieties of native Englishes such as British, American, and Australian, so are non-native varieties such as Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Malaysian. Non-native speakers have localised and appropriated English; they are forcing the language to speak their reality and represent their experiences. They coin new words, invent new rules of grammar, and assign new functions to English. It is their language, as much as it is the language of its native speakers.

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

Muslim societies have brought significant reforms in education and English language teaching in the wake of 9/11. These reforms have sought to ensure students study ‘more English and less Islam’ as per western demands and pressures. Madrasahs have been targeted for this linguistic intervention, particularly in South Asia. In Southeast Asia, there have been programmes such as English for ulamas for representing moderate views of Islam.

At the same time, there have been attempts at establishing English as an Islamic language. English has emerged as a default choice for propagating Islam in a globalising world. Recently, a Dhaka University colleague has published an article in an Oxford journal in which he observed that the qoumi madrassah community had less interest in the material value of English. However, they were aware of the role of English in spreading Islam, the colleague noted.

Where does English fit in with education in Bangladesh from an ideological point of view?

My ongoing research supports me to observe that if English has worked as a tool for secularising mainstream education, it has also been used as a tool for de-secularising madrassah education. I would of course interrogate this so-called de-secularisation, as it has created a mere façade of religiosity using the English language. In effect, English has been set to secularise madrassah education as well.

Secularisation of mainstream education

Mainstream education in Bangladesh, which caters to over 80 per cent of the school student population, is secular. The secular design and purpose can be illustrated by examining the English textbooks produced by the National Curriculum and Textbook Board. For my research, I have examined all these books from Year 1 to Year 9–10. My analysis shows that the books have presented an inclusive society without referring to any religious identity of the nation.

The people and the names that are used in different texts are secular people, who belong to different religious, ethnic and gender groups. The reader may find it hard to locate references to Islam or Muslims. Muslim names such as Mohammad or Abdul have been avoided. Islamic greetings such as Assalamu alaikum which have become part of the local cultural practice may not be found anywhere. 

The things that the people in the books do and talk about, the practices that they engage in, the likes and dislikes that they have, the hopes and aspirations that they express show secular ideals. Although some secular intellectuals and political authorities have expressed concerns that the number of hijab-wearing females has increased in the country, in sharp contrast to the social conditions, not a single image of the women included in the books is shown as wearing this Muslim dress. A couple of exceptions that I found include: a middle-aged rickshaw puller wearing a topi and a child pictured as praying. But none of these images are linked to extended texts or teaching and learning activities.

The society that is depicted in the books is a secular one. The question of whether this is a realistic picture of life and society in Bangladesh is a different matter.

De-secularisation of madrasahs

Since 2015, the school English textbooks together with the textbook for Bangladesh and Global Studies have been used in madrasah education at the ibtedaye and dakhil levels. This might have presented a curricular challenge for education authorities: How can they use a set of secular textbooks in faith-based education? The authorities have worked out an education innovation in a digital world. This I would call ‘Photoshop engineering of the curriculum’. The authorities might have found this digital engineering of textbooks cost-effective, efficient, and appropriate for madrasah education.

What is this curricular engineering?

The authorities have made ‘revisions’ and ‘modifications’ in the secular textbooks in an effort to make them relevant to madrassahs. The aim is to de-secularise the secularised textbooks. As an education researcher, I was interested in the revisions which sought to achieve the ideological transformation — from secularisation to de-secularisation.

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

I found three kinds of modifications that were made in the schoolbooks for their use in madrassahs. First, most of the pictures of people in the madrassah version were given 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 secularisation of the schoolbooks demanded not using head coverings as a religious dress code, de-secularisation can be achieved by putting the coverings on. This de-secularisation was accomplished by photoshop engineering. Of course, not all heads in the pictures can be covered, from a practical point of view.

The second kind of modifications includes changing the institution — from school to madrassah — 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 school textbook read ‘My first day at the new school was interesting’, it became ‘My first day at the new madrassah was interesting’ in the madrassah edition. No other changes were made, regardless of the subject matter.

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

The third kind of revisions includes using the Islamic greeting ‘Assalamu alaikum’ in the madrassah books which is not used in the schoolbooks obviously on secular grounds. Assalamu alaikum can be found in the Year 1 and the Year 7 books, once in each of them. Another related modification that was made on one occasion is changing ‘folk songs’ from the schoolbook into ‘hamd and nat’ in the madrassah edition. It might have been (wrongly) assumed that folk songs were not endorsed by Islam.

De-secularising or secularising?

As a product of secular mainstream education, I have limited knowledge of Islam and Islamic rules. However, I can’t help making a few observations as an educator bearing a Muslim name. The modifications by the authorities are appreciable, as the intention may have been to show respect for and sensitivity towards the religious sector. Whether the changes are sufficient for making the textbooks suitable for madrasah education can be debated, but I have no interest in such debates.

However, what I wonder about are the assumptions of Islam that have guided the curricular engineering. The (un)intentional message that is communicated by the cosmetic revisions is that Islam is all about covering heads and, occasionally, using Islamic greetings; madrassah students, and for that matter religious people, can do all that secular people do, provided their heads are covered, among a few other things.

If the processes and outcomes of the curricular engineering were appropriate for madrassah education, hypothetically we could take a conventional madrassah book, remove the head coverings from any pictures, delete the Islamic greetings, and change the names. The revised book should then be suitable for mainstream secular education.

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

Dr. Obaidul Hamid is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia. He researches language, education, and society in the developing world.

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