Extended Interview: Zobaida Jalal
Zobaida Jalal served as Pakistan's federal education minister under General Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2003. During her tenure, she began curriculum reforms that involved revisions of some public school textbooks citing the Koran, which caused controversy among students and religious groups. She has been critical of the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) program directing funds to Pakistan's schools, saying there is "nothing to show" for the $100 million already spent by USAID on an education project. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted in Lahore in November 2009.
David Montero: The United States is about to give $7.5 billion in civilian aid to Pakistan. As a former education minister, do you have confidence that the money allocated to education will go where it is needed?
Zobaida Jalal: First let me say, we have already received $100 million in U.S. assistance for three years aligned to education sector reforms. We’ve not only had the U.S. assistance, but bilateral assistance, and assistance from the [Pakistan] government budget itself. And with all this, has come leakage. With the U.S. assistance, I was very concerned as a minister, because I saw that it was a liability for my country and for the U.S. government. They are also answerable to their public.
The problem is we had no monitoring system in place; there were no third-party evaluations so that we could check where the money was going; where the grants were going, or if they were actually being utilized or not? Through the Pakistani budgetary allocation process itself, there is a lot of leakage. Because of this leakage [the general lack of oversight and management], there is nothing to show today on the ground for the $100 million that has come from the United States over the last three years.
How do you fix that?
Whatever province or tribal agency needs [educational] support, qualified education officials should sit down and sign agreements with those regional governments to set conditions. We have to strengthen our [educational and government] institutions, if we want that money to be rightly utilized. That requirement also extends to NGOs and the private sector. I am speaking as someone who is from the civil society now, with her own NGO in this area.
And it’s not just looking at the larger NGOs, which have maybe $300 million in their accounts, but focusing on grassroots efforts and smaller NGOs and community-based organizations that are doing a lot more and have more direct expertise in education. That is what my experience is showing me.
Pakistan’s curriculum has been the subject of controversy and debate. When you served as education minister, did you feel that the curriculum was a problem?
It was a problem. It had been in place for 18 years and had never been looked into. When I came in [to the government] and started thinking about the quality of education, one of the main components was the curriculum and the textbooks reaching classrooms. It was particularly acute in the rural areas. Even in places like Baluchistan, when we were spreading the message that “Education is free, and there are free textbooks,” you still found children were buying the older government textbooks.
What about the content of some of these older textbooks?
We saw no problems with the arts or science content, except in one of the books on biology, in which we found references from the Holy Koran in Arabic. Because we have many different religious groups in public schools, we felt it was too much for the minority religions [to have these references to the Koran in Arabic].
You mean, not everyone is Muslim?
Yes, not everybody is Muslim, but being able to read the Holy Koran in Arabic suddenly becomes compulsory. Our response to this example was, “OK, you don't need to have the verse in Arabic. You can have a footnote referencing it.” We were surprised by the resistance we received.
What was the resistance?
The resistance was from the religious political parties in the government assembly. They insisted that the secular government was trying to remove all teachings of Islam.
The other part of the curriculum we looked at was the Islamic education itself. We felt that, according to the principles and the teachings of Islam, we should take a more humanistic approach and talk about human rights and tolerance and peace, rather than just about rituals, in Islamic education.
There was one specific chapter that was repeatedly being taught to the children, which talks more of jihad than any other chapter of the Koran. Just on a practical level, [the chapter] was very long, and the children were finding it very difficult to learn by heart and be able to recite it during examination. It was not what the teaching itself was all about.
What do you want a child to learn about jihad?
The main thing is that jihad is not only fighting a foreigner. Jihad means campaigning, fighting, mobilizing for any cause -- a jihad against illiteracy, for example. Unfortunately, “jihad” in our society just means a war against infidels or a war against anyone who has a religion other than Islam.
If you look at the teachings of the holy prophet on jihad, even if you are at war, you should not be the first person to raise your sword; you would raise it only for your defense.
Was that being explained in the curriculum text you reviewed?
That was not being explained, and it could be taken out of context. We have all kinds of people, coming from all kinds of societies. And in rural areas, in particular, there is little awareness except what comes from this [text] book. You may have a mullah who is an illiterate person himself or herself. And how much can she explain and what kind of knowledge would she have to interpret these teachings?
We added [to the textbook curriculum] the last sermon of the holy prophet, which talks about humanity. It talks about your responsibilities and duties to any other human being. It talks about how, as a Muslim, you live with minorities of other religions in the same city. Even if they are considered infidels and have no religion, you live alongside them as human beings.
How did the religious parties react to this?
They raised a hue and cry. Some portions of the curriculum were not acceptable to many of the religious groups. It is what led to my political confrontations in the assembly and outside, and what the media picked up on. My statement was that this is not something that I have written. This is something that the holy prophet has written. So, you see, you can’t just pick and choose [what to include from the Holy Koran]. You have to teach the whole sermon, so that children know what the last sermon is all about.
Let me understand. You are saying that this chapter talks about harmony among Muslims and Christians and Jews. And there were some people on the religious right who were saying, “We don't want our children learning harmony among Christians, Muslims, Jews, and those with no religious faith”?
Yes. That's true.
Were you able to enact the reforms, or did you have to stop?
Yes, I continued. We finished the reforms of the curriculum in 2002. But then, when we went into the production of the new textbooks, there was another problem with the textbook boards in the private sector that have [a monopoly] on printing the textbooks. When we said we were going to deregulate the printing and production of textbooks to open it up to competition, it meant involving more people from the private sector, not only for printing but also for publishing, to get the best-quality low-cost books. Then you allow the provinces and the district governances to choose whichever book they prefer, because the content would be the same and aligned to the curriculum. There was a huge resistance to this [opening up of competition].
Can we go back to the resistance from the religious right on the curriculum itself? Describe that. What did they do?
When we made the curriculum for the Islamic education, there were scholars involved. They were experts from the curriculum wing of the federal ministry involved. And we had people from the provinces who were also part of the textbook boards and were sitting on the committees and helping make these decisions. But when the first textbooks were printed, the critics said, “You know, there are issues here that are very sensitive for people.” For instance, on one page there was praise of the holy prophet, and on the opposite page, there was a story about a dog and a picture of a dog.
And people were upset by this?
People were upset, and once the newspapers published articles about it, the religious parties and their supporters went on the streets, especially the student organizations. They called me a stooge of the U.S. government and said that I had made these reforms [to the Islamic education curriculum] because the U.S government wanted it, even though there was no such interference. These were things we felt we needed to do as a government, and that is why we did them, for the betterment and quality of Pakistan education.
If I go into a public school today, do you think I would find more of these references to jihad?
This is a continuous process. In 2007, after I left the ministry, the new education minister continued [the reform]. They have finalized the curriculum review, and new textbooks will be produced, but it will take time. They have said it will take them until 2011 to release the latest books. So maybe, in the newest textbooks, you may not find [the stronger references to jihad]. I'm not sure. I have not seen the curriculum.
Is Pakistan trying to be a secular republic or an Islamic country? It seems that this is the question at the root of the battle over education.
Unfortunately, when we talk of secularism, it is associated with wanting to be Westernized people. But that's not what it's about. In Islam, I, as a Muslim, should be a very balanced person. I should be a very tolerant person. I should be a person who has compassion and consideration for other religions and for other people -- for instance, those who are poor and less fortunate than me. The reality in Pakistan is that we need practical Muslims. Instead, we have one extreme or the other. And there's never been a balanced approach in our attitudes. As new governments come in, that balanced attitude does not come out.