Attack on the British Council office in Kabul

On Friday the 19th of August, the British Council office in Kabul was attacked by two suicide bombers. Several people were killed, mostly Afghani policemen. The attack took place on the day marking 92 years of Afghanistan’s independence from the British rule in 1919.   

Although the Guardian said that “it was unclear whether the attack was related to the anniversary”, I wonder if the two events were in fact somehow connected, even in a symbolic, unintended way, and if English is indeed such a mortal threat to some that it has to be fought against with bombs and AK-47s.

So, here are a few re-heated, rhetorical (?) questions: Is English really a hegemonic force re-colonising the world? Does it really devalue local languages and cultures in order to promote itself as the new lingua franca which only serves the rich and the powerful, i.e. the West? Does teaching it really result in educational endeavours and language policies that do not have the interests of non-Western countries at heart? And does it have to be fought against?

Please, forgive the naivety of the above – as a teacher of English in an Arab, Muslim country I have to ask myself these questions on a daily basis, but try to retain my basic professional and personal belief that the language I teach to my Arab students does not lead to their “re-colonisation” but instead empowers them and gives them choices which otherwise could be denied to them (English certainly empowered me when I first studied it and discovered the opportunities it opened up to me).    

I do understand that many British TESOL practitioners may wish to distance themselves from the BC as an institution representing government (FO) interests and policies, but I also remember the British Council from its “glory days” in the communist Poland where it offered people access to a language which spelled freedom from political oppression. How paradoxical it is that the same language can mean another kind of oppression to another kind of people.

I teach English in a country undergoing modernisation and opening up to freedom, but it is also a country where many people, including those studying in Education City, consider English-language education a threat to indigenous values (see below). By the way, the one terrorist attack that took place in Doha (on the 19th of March 2005) was aimed at a British amateur theatre and, most likely as a coincidence but a very significant one, killed an English teacher.    

Here is a link to a short article in the Guardian about the British Council’s operations in Kabul.

And here is a link to an article in an English-language Qatari newspaper about a survey on how western education erodes local culture.



  • Magda Rostron

    It’s had a firm hold of me for a long time now – you know my Polish background and my thoughts on the directions of education in Qatar. It’s a powerful and still relatively unexplored discourse. Count me in.


  • Richard Fay

    This subverting storylines discourse is taking hold then?

  • Magda Rostron

    Of course, I meant to write “nearly” and “tears”, but the tears nearly blinded me…

  • Magda Rostron

    Interesting indeed – your nostalgic account neraly brought teras to my eyes!

    On another note, it is also full of subversive strands going in so many different directions, some subverting each other – fascinating stuff, worth a more in-depth analysis.


  • Richard Fay

    Yes, I know what you mean. In my experience, the BC was a welcome presence in Poland, welcomed by locals and also by ex-pats like ourselves. But it was never a neutral force, it always had an agenda that mixed the cultural, the linguistic and the political – it’s just that their agenda, I would argue, took on larger or smaller profile for different people at different times …

    And I remember that ‘hunger’ for the West among our student and colleagues, friends and neighbours – indeed, it was this hunger that led Jackie to decide to use our ‘home network’ to provide some English-medium sojourn opportunities for those of our students who otherwise had no connections to enable this.

    So, we brought 16 (I think in 1988), 12 in 1989, and 10 in 1990, all of whom were housed by our network of family and friends, and most of whom had gofer types positions in the EFL summer schools (enabling them to see and use Western textbooks and go on all kinds of tourist trips etc). We remain good friends with many of them to this day.

    I remember many conversations around our kitchen table in Manchester and Poznan where they reflected on their pre-sojourn hunger and perceptions of the West and their post-sojourn understandings. I guess staying with us in a Moss Side 2up-2down terrace and driving around in our absolutely battered, on-its-very-last-wheels Morris Marina (with a door held on by wire and a battery fault that meant push-starting most mornings) challenged some of their assumptions about the (rosily imagined) West …. just as our involvement in their world in Poland challenged many of our assumptions about the Eastern Bloc ….. ah ….. interesting times …..

  • Magda Rostron

    Fair enough, point taken – I suppose the BC’s operations were seen in a much more rosy (naive?) light by its Polish customers, young students simply wanting to learn English as a gateway to a better world.

    The “better” world opened up and came to us in 1989 and we are still reeling from the shock, but when access to it was being made difficult or impossible by the communist regime, we tended to see institutions such the BC (and BBC World Service, Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, etc.) as beacons of freedom simply because they brought us a little bit closer to the coveted West.

    Things in Poland have changed since then and my views of the BC have changed, but I still remember how good it felt to be able to use their library, read English newspapers, borrow videos, etc. It all gave us a taste of freedom then.


  • Richard Fay

    Re the BC’s ‘glory days’ in Poland in the 1980s, I remember asking them to support a scheme we (Jackie and I) had cooked up to bring some of our MA students (future teachers of English in the main) from Poland to the Manchester to experience EFL summer schools, the West, etc. The BC replied that “there was no perceived need for this sort of thing”. This was in 1988. Come the 1989 changes, and they then spent the next 5 years or so funding exactly that ‘kind of thing’. I remember the moment of realisation very clearly when I understood how driven the BC was at that time by the FO agenda and perceptions of things. (Or maybe they just didn’t like us and our scheme!!)

    It reminds me, too, of the BBC World Service (a key radio resource for us at that time) and its reporting of demonstrations in our city (Poznan). There were two consecutive weekends of protests: the first a small-ish affair organised by Solidarnosc; the 2nd much larger protest was against plans for a nuclear power station in Wielka Polska. The former received substantial World Service coverage; the latter? None at all. The topic of “Environmental protest + Poland” clearly had less cache than Poland + Trade Union Protests”. Maybe the BBC were right (given what soon transpired) but it didn’t feel it at the time …. and we were left to wonder the extent to which the BBC was reporting things but also shaping the media climate in which some kinds of things might happen ….

  • Magda Rostron

    Hi Achilleas, great observations. I agree with your comments re: the binary opposition between ‘local’ and ‘global’ – yes, it’s a lot more complicated than that and involves various groups and sub-groups of stakeholders and power structures.

    You ask – is it not paradoxical to argue that increased literacy is harmful? I’d say, it depends on the point of view – it’s “harmful” to those whose position of power is jeopardised by it (vide the Arab spring). But, I’d also say, substitute “subversive” for “harmful” – and it reads differently. Increased literacy translates itself into increased political, social and cultural agency which, under certain circumstances (you say, “totalitarian regimes around the world”, yes, but also theocracies, other authoritarian systems), will indeed prove to be “harmful” to those who strive to maintain the status quo because it will inevitably lead to its subversion.

    I have been long considering the notion of subversiveness of education based on my Polish experiences and extended to incorporate my present experiences. Richard proposed a panel debating subversive narratives – when I started putting my various “subversive” strands together I almost got scared at what I am really doing here… 🙂


  • So many things to ponder about… Thanks, Magda, for this opportunity to reflect on this.

    My initial reaction is that it may be unhelpful to frame this situation in dualistic terms, i.e. a ‘good’ native culture under threat by an ‘evil’ globalising force. The problem with such a perspective, I think, is that it appears to lead very quickly to an impasse: how can we account for all the undisputably positive effects of bilingualism, if English is a priori defined as a threat? Is it not paradoxical, to say the least, to argue that increased literacy is harmful?

    What I propose, instead, is that rather than treat local cultures as monolithic constructs under threat by the onslaught of English, we might try to be more sensitive to the dunamics of the local culture, and particularly the power structures inherent in them. Such a nuanced perspective should allow us to specify more accurately which aspects of the local culture are influenced by the incursion of English and whether the effect is desirable or not.

    To build on your example of Poland, I am not sure how knowledge of English impacted perceptions of Polish identity and whether such change was detrimental. But I think it is fair to say that it unsettled the power structures that underpinned the communist regime, empowering people to select the form of governance they preferred (I am aware that there are alternative narratives as well). I wonder whether similar processes are in place in other totalitarian regimes around the world, and to what extent the discourse of ‘threatened identity’ in these contexts is, in fact, also motivated by the desire to preserve the political status quo.

    I think I’ve written again somewhere about the similarities between the ‘English-language imperialism’ discourse and the counter-discourse to empiricism that emerged in Modern Greek philosophy between the 17th and 19th centuries. Why should Greeks reject the authoritative writings of Aristotle and Plato in favour of Westerners? Why turn to Protestants or even –horribile dictu– Catholics for knowledge, when the truth was already clearly stated in the Orthodox (i.e. dogmatically correct) writings? This discourse was widespread and rhetorically powerful (less so politically), and I think it serves to illustrate that even genuinely felt concerns about cultural purity may be misguided.

    Back to English: I think that the questions we need to be asking ourselves are: ‘by whom is English being promoted / resisted in this particular context and to what end(s)?’ The answers will, I believe, vary across settings highlighting the need for empirical research and hinting at the pitfalls of a dogmatic ‘one theory explains all’ epistemological positions.