Pakistan province rewrites text books to satisfy Islamic conservatives

Peshawar, Pakistan - A Pakistani province is rewriting school books to make them more Islamic, inserting verses on jihad, removing pictures of unveiled women and changing material on recent history, officials said on Thursday.

The public tussle over the changes mirrors a struggle for power at the heart of Pakistan's young democracy. Secular, liberal parties are vying with conservative, religious parties for influence in the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people.

That struggle often plays out in the classroom. Professors or teachers accused of blasphemy have been attacked, jailed or killed. School books commissioned by provincial governments have been frequently rewritten.

The latest changes in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cover chemistry, physics, English, history and geography text books.

Education official Bashir Hussain Shah told Reuters that the changes include reintroducing religious verses on jihad, a word that means holy struggle but is also often used by insurgents. That had been removed from the curriculum for 13 and 14 year olds, he said, but was being restored.

Inayatullah Khan, the leader of religious political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, said the verses on jihad were not intended to promote violence but to inform students when jihad was lawful.

"It doesn't allow Muslims to fight against those non-Muslims with whom you have diplomatic ties or an agreement," he said.

Changes were also made to history books and science books, Khan said. They would reverse changes that had replaced content about Muslims with material about non-Muslims, including American Helen Keller, an author who was deaf and blind, and Hindu ruler Raja Dahir.

"Kashmir, which we consider an integral part of Pakistan, was stated as part of India in the map in a book. Similarly, it was mentioned that Bangladesh got freedom fr‎om Pakistan, which we don't accept," he said.

Shah said all pictures of girls without a head scarf would be removed and replaced with pictures where they were wearing a head scarf.

Another official said a physics book for teenagers would include Koranic verses regarding the creation of universe and ecosystem.

The previous provincial government was headed by the more secular Awami National Party. When they came to power in 2008, they rewrote textbooks to remove some religious references.

The current government, which took power after May 2013 elections, is a coalition led by the party of former famed cricketer Imran Khan. It includes religiously conservative parties like Khan's.

Atif Khan, the provincial education minister, sought to play down the changes, saying they are merely reverting to an earlier curriculum. His provincial education department is getting $29 million (18 million pounds) from the British government this year.

"The previous government in 2006-7 had made some changes in the curriculum and removed some sections from syllabus. Those changes didn't suit our Islamic society," he said.

"Instead of 'good morning' in English books, we included 'Assalamo Alaikum'. Other changes made in the curriculum during our tenure are minor," he said.

But Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor campaigning for education reforms, said that textbooks were an important cultural battleground for religious conservatives.

"These changes will result in a further hardening of attitudes," he said. "Their whole strategy is to influence the younger generation."