Monday, August 1, 2011

They're all out to get us :(

When I was in school our history books were heavily Euro-centric, describing the development of civilisation as a straight line:

Mesopotamia → Egypt → Greece → Rome → Dark Ages → Renaissance → Englightenment → Colonisation → Modernity

We had small nods towards acknowledging other great world cultures like China or India, but the bulk of our history was about Europe, Western Europe and Ireland. In one sense this is natural, we can't study everything and the local stuff is more relevant in creating the societies we experience today. It might, though, create an undeserved sense that the local is central and crucial to the rest of the world.

Perhaps that explains this, an observation of Pakistan's education system by journalist Maheen Usmani:

The Social Studies textbook for Class 7 says: “European nations have been working during the past three centuries, through conspiracies on naked aggression to subjugate the countries of the Muslim world.”

Usmani's focus is on the Islamification of Pakistan's education system especially during the reign of General Zia ul-Haq. But it also shows a strange Islam-centrism by the author of the Social Studies book.

Because it's absurd! What a theory: that the nations of Europe got together for three hundred years just to subjugate Muslims!

Think about Spain and Portugal, who drove the Muslim Moors out of Iberia over centuries of wars ending in the 1400s. Both then sailed westward and created gigantic empires in the New World, destroying native civilisations and seizing so much gold and silver that it caused a wave of inflation back in Europe. An interesting Wikipedia map of the Spanish Empire shows how little of it overlapped with Muslim land:

The Spanish and Portuguese expanded, traded, and conquered indiscriminately.

The other European powers were no different. England's first experiments with modern colonisation were probably in Ireland. In 1556 Queen Mary had land seized from the Irish and granted to 160 loyal families. England's colonial expansion then took them to the Americas, and brought them into conflict with Native Americans and the other European powers. Wikipedia gives us a map of all the lands ruled at some stage by Britain:

Hindus, Protestants, Catholics, animists, Muslims and Sikhs, all ruled from London. Not only did the British not deliberately pick out Muslims to subjugate, they fought alongside them, joining the Ottoman Turks against Christian Russians in the Crimea War. Britain's concerns were rational and selfish, seeking to secure trade routes and dominate the global economy. That some of their subjects were Muslim must have been incidental, not intentional.

So the Social Studies book is almost childlike in its conviction that the great global conflicts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were somehow all focused on destroying Islam.

My own school history books tended to downplay the importance of non-Western civilisations, but they did not attack or deride them. There were occasional mentions of the wave of technologies that entered Europe via Moorish Spain or through contact with Muslims during the Crusades, as well as the slow spread of Chinese inventions like gun powder and the compass, or the Indian developments in mathematics. Our Euro-centric history placed the seat of real world change right here, though, and Muslims became peripheral or irrelevant.

Yet my books, flawed as they were, at least acknowledged that Ireland was rarely at the very fulcrum of history! They had sense enough to show that the big changes were going on in Italy or Germany or Britain. The author of Pakistan's Social Studies book couldn't manage even this, instead interpreting the great shifts of human history that caused a few European powers to conquer most of the world as bitter conpiracies against Islam.

And that is daft.


  1. we had slightly more subtle propaganda against the british, french and portuguese, much of the chapters also taught us about the "great sacrifices" of our freedom fighters. Our history textbooks also ended at 1947.

    I wonder how Mongolian textbooks might portray genghis khan?

  2. Oh we certainly had lots of national martyrs in our history books too, our primary school had a framed poster showing the signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic, who were executed by the British authorities after the 1916 Rising. Ireland had a long history of lost wars :P Haha so where other countries boasted about valiant victories, Irish nationalists boasted about defiant martyrdom.

    I can't remember the tone of our primary level history books much but I seem to remember feeling a sense of nationalist outrage on behalf of the oppressed Irish of old. It took some years to lose that and I gradually learned a more nuanced understanding of history, complete with the many atrocities and treacheries of the Irish sides.

    We weren't given any kind of propaganda against non-European cultures, but we simply didn't learn much about them at all. Aztecs were mentioned only to the extent that Spaniards conquered them, for example. I've really enjoyed expanding my history knowledge since then, though... Mongols especially :)

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