In the latest attempt to project its “soft power” in South Asia, the US government has approved a $20 million project to bring a local adaptation of Sesame Street to Pakistan. Time magazine notes:

“‘The idea is to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning,’ said Faizaan Peerzada, a collaborator on the Pakistani version of the show. “This is a very serious business, the education of the children of Pakistan at a critical time.” Their main messages will be of acceptance and empowerment, to sway youngsters away from religious extremism and promote growth.”

The Guardian writes that “The show will have strong female characters and carry an implicit message of tolerance but will feature no pro-American propaganda or overt challenge to hard line religious sentiment,” (Guardian, 4/7/2011).  Airing on PTV, “Sim Sim Humara” will reach only 3 million children in their homes (approximately 16 million households or 68% of the population own a television in Pakistan), but there are plans to use a radio version of the show and even mobile TV vans to reach remote areas, with an ultimate audience of around 95 million people.

Deploying adorable muppets is likely to be a welcome change of pace from previous American attempts to shape the educational content of Pakistan (and particularly Afghan refugees living in Pakistan).  During the anti-Soviet resistance until 1994, the US spent $51 million creating children’s text books filled with “violent images and militant Islamic images.”  Children were taught to count with “images of tanks, missiles, and landmines,” in the hopes of raising a generation geared to join one of the seven anti-Soviet resistance parties (Washington Post 3/23/2002). The American textbooks were so militant that the Taliban used them to educate another generation of Afghan refugees and returnees (although they took the time to scratch out the faces of all the human characters). After 9/11, the Bush administration spent millions more creating a new version of the same textbooks but without images of weapons and warfare.  Nevertheless, the religious content of the books was retained. According to the Washington Post (3/23/2002) UNICEF attempted to buy up the old militarized version at a cost of $200,000.

Ironically, this is not the first time that the muppets have traveled to Pakistan.  Dubbed versions of Sesame Street in Urdu have been aired on Pakistan television since the seventies. There were also locally produced muppet based programs, such as Uncle Sargam (which apparently morphed into an adult comedy show according to my Pakistani friends). Whether any of these shows had or will have any beneficial political impact on Pakistani children is unknown.

[Oh yes, and today’s blog post was brought to you by the letter “P” as in Progressive Pretext for Poor Propaganda.]

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