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USAID and Sesame Workshop recently attempted to have a “Pakistani” version of Sesame Street, entitled “Sim Sim Hamara” (Our Sim Sim, “sim sim” being the original Arabic for “sesame”). Their reasoning behind the show was that 1/3 of school age children in Pakistan do not attend school, and need some form of education. They also cited an increase in religious intolerance in Pakistan, stating that “Islamists” and “extremist views” are catching on in popularity.

While it is true that many children in Pakistan do not attend school, it must be pointed out that these children are not in school for one very important reason: their families are simply too poor to afford for them to go to school. They literally need their children to be out of school, and working, just to make enough money to buy some daal and atta.

For an American, living comfortably in their centrally heated and cooled home, with a fully equipped kitchen, and cable TV, this is very hard to comprehend. They think that an education for a child should be of paramount importance, and not a matter of choice. They will say that they family must put the child in school, and find some other way to “make ends meet.” Such an American has no idea to what degree of poverty these Pakistanis are living in. Nothing even comes close in America (and as I write this, I do think of the Native American reservations, and migrant communities, all living in near third world conditions, with the exception that they are living in a country that provides 100% free education, and has a fully-functioning welfare system). Many things that we take for granted here (clean, running water, a water-tight roof, etc), are precious commodities in poor communities in Pakistan (the term “shanty town” even conjures up better images than what is actual there. They are more akin to large homeless settlements, with cardboard and plastic bags used to build “houses.”).

USAID did not even take into consideration that many of these children more than likely do not have a television at home. How are they going to watch the show, I wonder? Were they planning to send TVs to them, along with generators so they could have electricity to power the TVs? Not sure that they really thought this all the way through. Apparently, USAID must have had something in their minds closer to how poverty looks in America.

The other issue is the “religious tolerance” approach. Pakistan is made up of more than 98% Muslim, with the other less than 2% being made up by a combination of Christian, Hindu, and Zoroastrian (Parsi). That less than 2% is so minute, the average Pakistani Muslim may never even meet someone from one of those religious backgrounds. Despite this, Sesame Workshop decided to give their two main characters very non-Muslim names. The show was led by a girl, named Rani, and a boy, named Munna. Both names are strongly associated with Hindu culture (especially Bollywood culture, with actresses like Rani Mukherjee, and movies with names like Munna Bhai), and do not represent the majority of Pakistanis.

This is not how you teach religious tolerance to an audience that is primarily made up of Muslims. This is more like how you teach your Muslim audience that they should shed any vestiges of being Muslim. This is how you teach a young and impressionable generation of Pakistanis that they need to work harder at embracing Hindu culture as their own. This is not religious tolerance at all. This is a rejection of their religion.

To hold onto the ridiculous concept that Islam is somehow at odds with the world and other religious is, well, ridiculous. It is damaging to perpetuate this myth that the only way a Muslim society can be tolerant of non-Muslims is to stop being “so Muslim.” It is sickening that Muslims were actually helping USAID and Sesame Workshop in this endeavor.

My husband is from Pakistan, and I have had the opportunity to visit the country. It is ethnically diverse (people are incorrect to think that ethnically speaking, Pakistan is homogenous), with many languages and cultural traditions. Despite media portrayals of the country, Pakistan is very tolerant of outsiders, as long as those outsiders are tolerant of Pakistan. It’s very much a two-way street in Pakistan, and it only makes sense that it be this way. One simply cannot expect a person to be kind to them if they are spitting in their face. While in Islamabad two years ago, I saw people from all across Europe and Asia, intermingled with the locals. Never did I see an awkward moment, or a heated confrontation. Nor did I see any indication of religious intolerance.

Something else that the media does not want the general American public to know about Pakistan is the existence of large churches in the country. Islamabad and Rawalpindi are home to churches that are bigger than many masjids here in America. And there are no protesters standing around these churches, harassing worshippers and they come and go. For the most part, everyone just minds their own business.

Yes, there are the so-called “tribal areas” and far remote villages where religious tensions are greater than in the cities.  They can be likened to the rural southern states here in America, in terms of tolerance and understanding of religious and ethnic diversity. While the media is very quick to use these areas as proof-positive that Pakistan is being overrun by extremists, they never dare to say the same thing about America, and the South. This is extremely biased, unequal, unfair, and inaccurate.

If Sesame Workshop wishes to claim that they are doing nothing more than trying to ensure that religious minorities are being equally represented in Sim Sim Hamara, I only have this to say to them: “Where are the Muslims on Sesame Street? We are a religious minority living in America, and we are not represented on Sesame Street. There are not even any Arabs on the show.”

I wonder what they would have to say to that.

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