The bizarre controversy should be read within the context of the larger issue of how Muslim clerics control the content of schoolbooks—and much more.
by Massimo Introvigne
Anatomy and biology textbooks include diagrams and sketches featuring “naked” human bodies. This is immoral, and the naked bodies should be dressed, said a regulatory authority for textbooks in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. Publishing companies that submitted their textbooks for review should also pay significant money for the work of the censors.
The same authority also asked that the word “interest” and related calculations be removed from textbooks on mathematics, since interest on loans is forbidden by Islamic law.
These directives may seem bizarre, but they hint at a much larger problem in Punjab. Before a school textbook may be published, the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) should deliver to the publisher a “no objection certificate” (NOC). Publishers should submit to the PCTB five to eight copies of each textbook, and wait for the Board’s verdict.
The Board in turn sends the textbooks to external experts and to a committee of ulema called Mutahidda Ulema Board (MUB), which should ascertain that nothing in the books offends Islam. The costs of the review are borne by the publishers. “The publishers will pay Rs45,000 to the Mutahidda Ulema Board (MUB), Rs80,000 to external review committees and Rs15,000 to the PCTB for issuance of the NOC,” one publisher told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, complaining that this makes the final cost of the textbooks significantly higher.
Originally, the MUB controlled only portions of textbooks dealing directly with religion, but the PCTB has now indicated that Islam can be slandered in all sort of textbooks, including these on science or mathematics, and the MUB should control everything.
Ulema have tightened the control of Pakistani society in recent years, particularly through the pronouncements of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a permanent constitutional body, which advises the Parliament and the government in matters religious.
The CII caused controversy when it reacted to the concern about violence on women in Pakistan by stating that a husband can “lightly beat his wife.” It also censored the slogan of the national anti-COVID-19 campaign, “Corona Say Darna Nahi, Larna Hai” (Don’t fear coronavirus, we have to fight it), by stating it gives the impression that humans should fight a plague sent by God, therefore fighting God himself.
Each of these statements has been criticized by other, more liberal Muslims. The problem however is not the interpretation of Islamic theology, but the excessive power institutions dominated by conservative Ulema exert in contemporary Pakistani society.