“A” is for Allah, “J” is for jihad

afgh-textbook-jihad“A” is for Allah, “J” is for jihad

By Davis, Craig

Craig Davis is a dual Ph.D. candidate in the departments of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He conducted fieldwork on Afghan education in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1999-2000, as a David L. Boren graduate fellow.

In the late 1980s

and early 1990s, the Education Center for Afghanistan, located in Peshawar, Pakistan, and operated by the Afghan mujahidin (holy warriors), published a series of primary education textbooks replete with images of Islamic militancy. These schoolbooks provided the mujahidin (who, after a ten-year struggle, drove the Soviet occupying forces from Afghanistan in 1989) with a medium for promoting political propaganda and inculcating values of Islamic militancy into a new generation of holy warriors prepared to conduct jihad against the enemies of Islam. Consider the following introduction to the Persian alphabet in a first-grade language arts book:

Alif [is for] Allah.

Allah is one.

Bi [is for] Father (baba).

Father goes to the mosque…

Pi [is for] Five (panj).

Islam has five pillars…

Ti [is for] Rifle (tufang).

Javad obtains rifles for the Mujahidin…

Jim [is for] Jihad.

Jihad is an obligation. My mom went to the jihad. Our brother gave water to the Mujahidin…

Dal [is for] Religion (din).

Our religion is Islam. The Russians are the enemies of the religion of Islam…

Zhi [is for] Good news (muzhdih).

The Mujahidin missiles rain down like dew on the Russians. My brother gave me good news that the Russians in our country taste defeat…

Shin [is for] Shakir.

Shakir conducts jihad with the sword. God becomes happy with the defeat of the Russians…

Zal [is for] Oppression (zulm).

Oppression is forbidden. The Russians are oppressors. We perform jihad against the oppressors…

Vav [is for] Nation (vatn).

Our nation is Afghanistan…. The Mujahidin made our country famous…. Our Muslim people are defeating the communists. The Mujahidin are making our dear country free.

As in this passage, the promotion of violence for the sake of Islam is the predominate theme throughout the mujahidin textbook series in both mathematics and language arts for grades one through six.

Although these violent images were officially edited out of the schoolbooks in 1992, my fieldwork in Afghanistan and among the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan in 1999 and 2000 revealed that the unedited versions of these textbooks were still in use in both countries. Aid workers reported that the unedited versions promoting violence occasionally surfaced in classrooms in Pakistan and were sanctioned by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Peshawar’s secondhand bookshops regularly stocked the old textbooks, which are filled with messages of Islamic militancy and illustrations of tanks, rocket launchers, and automatic weapons.

When I visited Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, in May 2000, I discovered that the stores stocking Taliban-approved textbooks were selling freshly printed copies of the old, unrevised mujahidin texts. Reports coming out of Kabul confirm the continued use of these schoolbooks, even as the new interim government assumed power. These textbooks glorify martyrdom, celebrate jihad, and speak of execution of “the enemy.” However, such messages and images of violence aimed at children are by no means a recent phenomenon. Consider this poem from a first-grade language arts textbook, published in 1970:

On the road

to our independence,

Our bodies, our heads, our possessions,

We will sacrifice,

We will sacrifice.

If, with designs on our land,

Our dirty enemies

Come forward one step,

We will cut off their feet,

We will cut off their legs,

We will cut off their legs.

If, in the direction of our land,

If, in the direction of our land,

The unjust enemy

If he casts a sharp glance,

We will pluck out his eyes,

We will pluck out his eyes.

A joke in fifth-grade language-arts schoolbook from the same period displays a macabre sense of humor: A boy returning from war was asked, “What did you do in the war?” He answered, “I cut both legs off an enemy at the knees.” When asked why he did not cut off the enemy’s head, the boy answered, “Someone else had already cut it off.”

These are but two instances in which educational materials were used to train young minds in a fanatical form of loyalty to the nation. The hostile imagery was part of the official curriculum during the reign (1933-73) of King Zahir Shah, the 88-year-old exile who has lived in Rome since 1973 and to whom many Afghans still turn for a sense of legitimacy and stability.

A new series of Afghan textbooks was developed during the period of communist government in Afghanistan, which stretched from 1978 under Nur Muhammad Taraki’s rule–and the subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979–to Muhammad Nagibullah’s fall in 1992. These textbooks promoted Marxist ideology within an Afghan cultural context. In “Martyrs,” a poem printed in a fourth-grade textbook, the students learned that they were the “martyrs of Western oppression.” Martyrdom and sacrifice were stressed as necessary components of the communist revolution and resistance against the enemy: “agents of the British,” “agents of colonialism,” and “agents of Western oppression.” These all were euphemisms for the mujahidin, who formed the militant resistance against the communist government after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Ironically, the term “mujahidin” was avoided in the textbooks of the time.

This series was still in limited use in May 2000 in some Afghan schools in the region, including in Estiqlal Lycee, a small coeducational Afghan elementary school in Islamabad, Pakistan. Almost half of the 236 students then at the lycee were girls, many of whom had come from Afghanistan after 1996, when the Taliban seized power and implemented policies that denied girls access to education past grade three.

One reason the school uses these books may be because women tend to fare better in the communist-era textbooks than in most of the other series. The textbooks attempted to appeal to young Afghan girls by stressing the important role that women played in the April Revolution, as the Afghan communist revolution was called. Mothers, female combatants, and the women of the proletariat were elevated to hero status at the expense of the revolution’s enemies: “Eternal glory to the nation’s heroic martyrs who have sacrificed their own lives in the struggle against the enemies of the April Revolution and of the people of Afghanistan…. Women combatants of the nation! Become active participants in the social, political, and economic life of the homeland, and strengthen…the April Revolution…. Boundless glory to the mothers of the heroes and the proletariat women of the nation.”

Ironically, the emphasis these textbooks placed on women’s participation in Afghanistan’s communist revolution may have played into the hands of the Islamic extremists who stripped Afghan women of their rights when they gained control of the country.

Far more violent, religiously oriented, and potentially damaging to Afghan children was the next generation of textbooks, developed in Peshawar in the late 1980s by a committee of Afghan educators under the auspices of the seven-party alliance of mujahidin, who formed the legitimate political and military resistance to the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. These textbooks aimed both to counterbalance the Marxist ideology of the communist series and to indoctrinate young Afghan children in Islamic militancy. Thus this subtraction problem, from a third-grade mathematics textbook: “One group of mujahidin attack 50 Russian soldiers. In that attack 20 Russians were killed. How many Russians fled?”

A fourth-grade mathematics textbook poses the following problem: “The speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3,200 meters from a mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian’s head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead.”

Another irony is that this textbook series was underwritten by U.S. grants. One of the responsibilities of the mujahidin-operated Education Center for Afghanistan was to write, print, and distribute textbooks. The ECA was funded by the Education Program for Afghanistan at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), under a $50 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development that ran from September 1986 through June 1994. The UNO program staff chose to ignore the images of Islamic militancy in the children’s textbooks during the first five years of the program.

Raheem Yaseer, an Afghan educator who worked at the UNO office in Peshawar during the early years of the program and now acts as the campus coordinator for the program in Omaha, defends the decision to allow the mujahidin parties to develop the violent content of the textbooks free of outside intervention. The staff, he says, was acutely aware of Afghan “religious and cultural sensitivities” during the war with the Soviets. Moreover, the University of Nebraska did not wish to be seen as imposing American values on Afghan educators. 1

After the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the Education Program for Afghanistan–under increasing pressure from Afghan parents and teachers, and various aid organizations–decided in 1991 to remove the militant images from the mujahidin textbook series. The revision process was completed by 1992. Educators commonly refer to the edited versions as the revised UNO textbooks, which are widely used in Pakistan and Afghanistan today.

However, two years ago, Joyce Gachiri, a project officer on education for the Afghanistan Country Office of UNICEF located in Islamabad, reported seeing many of the unrevised mujahidin books in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as well as in the province of Badakhshan, which was then in the hands of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. 2 During my visit to Kabul in May 2000, I purchased an entire series of the unrevised textbooks.

According to Ahmad Shah Durani, the printing press manager at the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) in Peshawar–the organization responsible for printing the revised UNO textbooks–the unedited mujahidin textbooks were not printed by ACBAR after 1992. When I confronted him in June 2000 with new copies of the violence-filled unrevised textbooks I had purchased in Kabul, he said that the inferior quality of paper and ink used pointed to an independent printing press in Peshawar.

The appearance of these unedited textbooks freshly printed in Peshawar and sold at textbook shops in Kabul some eight years after they were to have been replaced suggests that the Taliban wished to inspire a new generation of militants with the message of jihad. But the Taliban, who came to power in 1996, may not be entirely to blame. Between 1992 and 1996, militant factions of mujahidin ruled and battled over Kabul. Thus it is likely that these textbooks never fell out of favor with the mujahidin leadership, who were responsible for the militant content in the first place.

Much has been written since September 11 about the madrasa (theological school) system of education in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, extremist Muslims in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere helped to fund the madrassas, many of which have become vehicles for inculcating militant values in students. The most violent product of the madrasa system are the Taliban, who promoted absolute theocracy, public militancy, violent repression, and jihad in conjunction with terrorist groups. Even though the Taliban has been crushed, it would be a mistake to underestimate the political force of the madrasa system. Because of the inability of both the Afghan and Pakistani governments to provide universal education within their respective nations, many parents still look to madrassas to fill the void. In other cases, many students attending secular schools in the morning regularly study at madrassas in the afternoon. Recent estimates suggest that between 10 and 15 percent of Pakistan’s 45,000 madrassas promote violence; if true, the next generation of graduates will likely be a political force to be reckoned with.

One of the greatest challenges to the establishment of a lasting peace in Afghanistan and to the success of representative government there may lie in reforming the country’s educational system. But as the new interim government assumed power in Kabul, the future of Afghan education was unclear. Will the mujahidin, who are once again in a position to influence policy, insist on teaching Islamic militancy to school-children? Will Afghan children once again be exhorted to cut off the legs and pluck out the eyes of their “dirty enemies”? If so, Afghanistan’s road away from violent unrest will be a long one indeed.

The translations from the Persian for the textbook illustrations were provided by Nahid Seyedsayamdost.


This essay is drawn from a longer, unpublished analysis, “Nationalism, Revolution, and Jihad: Images of Violence in Afghan Primary Education Textbooks,” the research for which was made possible by a David L. Boren graduate fellowship. The author would like to thank Jamsheed Choksy, Paul Losensky, and M. Nazif Shahrani for their comments and insights.

1. Interviews with the author, December 5 and 7, 2001.

2. Conversation with the author, March 30, 2000.

Illustration (Children with weapons marching to flag of Afghanistan)