Why are our university students turning towards extremism?
After the gruesome attack on MQM-Pakistan leader and leader of Opposition in Sindh Assembly Khawaja Izhar-ul-Hassan, some flabbergasting details have emerged. Karachi Police unearthed the newly-emerged militant outfit Ansar-ul-Sharia Pakistan (ASP). This group comprises highly qualified people, most of whom are students of engineering universities, and it was involved in sabotage activities and attack law-enforcement agencies personnel in Karachi. The head of the militant outfit Sheheryar alias Dr Abdullah Hashmi holds a Master’s degree in Applied Physics from the University of Karachi and is an Information Technology (IT) expert employed in computer department of NED University of Engineering and technology. Previously, in the recent past, we have seen the Safoora Goth carnage, killing of rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, on-campus lynching of Mishaal Khan, and the arrest of a female medical student, Noreen Leghari, for allegedly planning a suicide attack. These events underscore the dangerous inclination in some of Pakistan’s highly educated youth as they are gravitating toward violent extremism and radicalization.
Recent developments in antiterrorism efforts across Pakistan have revealed a dangerous and apparently growing dimension of militancy in the country. Although it has been conventional to put the onus of terrorism on Madrassahs, a number of university students and highly-educated people are becoming actively involved in terrorism. Moreover, we are observing an increasing trend of militants that hail not from war zones or the troubled tribal regions, but from the middle class of our society. What is even more problematic is that they are not graduates from religious institutions; they are the products of public sector varsities.
Some Notable Examples
This is not the first instance that a terrorist has hailed from a renowned university.
Ahmad Omar Said Sheikh, for instance, who orchestrated the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, hailed from an affluent family, and studied at the renowned London School of Economics.
Saad Aziz who was considered the mastermind of the Safoora Goth carnage in 2015, which left 46 people dead, and the murder of social activist Sabeen Mahmud was also an MBA student at an elite business school in Karachi.
Another suspect in the murder of Sabeen Mahmud named Hafiz Nasir was also a graduate student of the Karachi University, while another named Ishrat had a degree from the Sir Syed University of Engineering.
Another instance was the case of Noreen Laghari who was a final year medical student at the Liaquat Medical College (LMC) in Jamshoro, Sindh and went missing to join the Islamic State and was arrested before plotting a terror attack in Lahore. Her father was also a professor of chemistry.
Some Important Causes
The glorification of terrorists and their sordid acts is luring more and more youth especially mentally-disturbed, jobless youth into terrorism. More alarming is the situation that the terrorist outfits are using latest technology including internet and social media to propagate their distorted ideologies. Groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have also established their own websites, which are serving as virtual training grounds and offering tutorials on building bombs.
Troubled Personal Backgrounds
Unaddressed personal issues can befuddle the mind of an educated university student and make him/her easy prey for terror groups. The DIG Sindh police counter-terrorism department’s (CTD) Aamir Farooqi while addressing a seminar “Policing Extremism” told the audience that a psychoanalysis of Saad Aziz, who was tried by a military court and is now on death row for his involvement in the Safoora Goth massacre and Sabeen Mehmood’s murder, revealed that his mental unrest developed due to his “neglected childhood,” which later turned out to be a major source of his dangerous ambitions.
The West, and the USA in particular, has often been portrayed as a threat to the sovereignty and security of the Islamic world. An alarming number of people, including many highly-educated individuals, believe that there is a fabled campaign being conducted against Islam, which aims to weaken the Muslim world. Many would deem it appropriate to join terrorist organisations in order to counter the oppression of the antagonists of Islam. Terrorist organisations have exploited this by declaring the USA an enemy of the Muslim community, and that the USA plans to debilitate all Islamic countries it sees as a hazard to its own interests. They insist that the 2003 Iraq conflict and the war in Afghanistan (both of which were conducted by US-led coalitions) resulted in the unjustified devastation of the economy and people of both states, calling upon all Muslims to rise against the USA.
Youth dominates Pakistan’s population of 200 million people, so it is the most important demographic group and is also the most vulnerable one. Analysts believe deprived and confused youth, particularly those who can’t find answers to their problems, are most vulnerable to fall into the hands of extremist groups, such as IS, as they provide hardline narratives that glorify terrorism.
The youth of our country lives in an atmosphere that does not promise a bright future, because given the current deteriorating economic situation, it may prove difficult for even a highly-educated person to be employed to a satisfactory position, leading to frustration and a sense of low self-worth among them. A terrorist organisation may penetrate an educational institution, where those sympathetic to its beliefs may corrupt the minds of students and even staff members.
Flawed Educational System
Pakistan’s higher education system remains thoroughly ill-equipped to either curb extremism among students or identify individuals before they are able to go on to commit violent crimes. In our country, educational institutions and academia have become a key factor in extremism and terrorism. Although regarding the connection between education and extremism in Pakistan much attention has remained focused on the role of madrassas, the main issue is the failure of successive governments and regimes to provide adequate education infrastructure and curricula.
Due to poor quality of curricula and poorly-trained faculty, as well as the interference in colleges, universities and other degree-awarding institutions by successive governments, the former could not play any meaningful role in educating the society and thus failed to provide it leadership. Pakistani universities did occasionally serve as rallying grounds and launching pads for liberal and leftist political movements but, by and large, they have failed to play their manifest functions. Instead of educating the society through graduates and finding solutions to social problems, our universities have suffered deep parochial divisions.
Due to absence of strong research traditions and capacity to study contemporary issues, Pakistani universities cannot take exact cognisance of prevailing social problems, including religious extremism, exploring the issues, reaching their root causes and bringing forth the findings, suggesting solutions and enabling the decision-makers to take informed and appropriate policy actions.
The Way Forward
The war against extremism perpetrated in the name of religion could only be won when there is a full-scale societal and state response to counter violence and radicalism.
An Open Society
Contrary to Islamic traditions, talking asking questions about religion is considered a taboo in our society. Where there is debate on religious issues, there is always a way to understand others’ points of view and rectify the mistakes and clear the air of misunderstanding on both sides. Security and defense analyst Aisha Siddiqa saysd, “When there’s no place in the country where you can engage in an open debate on religion, then the only way forward is in the form of radicalization.”
Counternarrative and De-radicalization
It is highly important that we must build a counternarrative and cultivate an environment where youth can openly engage in conversations on issues considered taboo in Pakistan. In his report on the Quetta carnage in August 2016, Justice Qazi Faez Isa has derived a counter-narrative from the Quran and hadith. He has quoted verses in which the Holy Quran says that the killer of a believer will go to hell and attract the wrath and curse of Allah; prohibits killing anything which has a soul, which Allah has made sacred; prohibits suicide (and, by implication, suicide bombing); and enjoins all places of worship to be safeguarded, making specific mention of monasteries, synagogues and mosques.
This report can serve as a guideline to build such a counternarrative.
Promoting ‘Unity in Diversity’
Pakistani culture must be re-built on tolerance of diverse cultural identities, making cultural diversity the basis of education, elimination of class divisions, reforming the justice system, making Pakistan a welfare state, and persuading the media to discourage the extremist narrative. There must be a dialogue between religious scholars and social scientists to determine a modern society’s needs as it is necessary to restructure a non-discriminatory religious thought, develop proper education and guidance on sensitive religious issues so that the terrorists’ wrong interpretations of religion lose their appeal.
Religious scholars also need to unite keeping aside their sectarian and other divisions and come up with a consensus on the matter, while the role of media is also crucial to spread self-awareness. There also needs to a screening mechanism in universities and educational institutions, and teachers and students should report any student with inclination towards extremist tendencies.
No Political Influence in Universities
Senior Analyst Rasool Baksh Rais says the history of the presence of terrorist network on campus goes back to the time when student organisations were politicised, and used as a tool by religious and political organisations. He says, “Rather than realising the autonomy and independence of students, political parties instead decide to use them … all political, religious, and even extremist organisation slowly joined and formed their own student unions.”
This political interference has completed ruined and paralysed all public universities across the country, which has lead many people to instead get admission in private universities. This must stop now and there must be a ban on the activities of political in educational institutions of the country.
By imparting and disseminating the ideals of liberalism, through curricula in schools and media, extremism could be greatly countered. The logical corollary of self-restraint by people having extremist tendencies is moderation, which leads to pragmatism that calls for sorting out issues and conflicts through the process of dialogue, having the elements of give and take and reconciling divergent interests of disputing parties.
In order to use the central principles of liberalism for countering extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, all the tools that are compatible must be used instrumentally. In this regard the creation of a knowledgeable and proactively responsive civil society, independent and vibrant media domestically, enhanced economic and cultural integration regionally and internationally could be instrumental.
Implementing National Action Plan
Since teachers and professors had a larger role to play in curtailing extremism in varsities, it was time now to focus the National Action Plan towards colleges and universities. The 20-point National Action Plan against terrorism and extremism, this plan needs to be buttressed by following measures:
(a) Building the capacity of government departments to understand the phenomenon of extremism and terrorism.
(b) Making Fata a separate province to plug the political vacuum and dilute the social structure there.
(c) Launch a full-fledged media campaign with different messages for different target audiences. For instance, the general masses and media personnel must be told what are the real (although concealed) objectives of the insurgents/terrorists, why they employ terrorism for their cause; trying to prove their aims and tactics as un-Islamic. In this regard ideological counterpropaganda could work wonders.
(d) Special lectures and presentations must be organised for government servants of all departments to tell them about the aims and objectives of the insurgents and terrorists and how they could be useful in countering them.
(e) Special indoctrination sessions must be organised for the police, intelligence and other law-enforcement personnel making them believe that countering extremists and terrorists not only is their duty towards the state but also towards society and above all Islam as trouncing ‘Fitna’ is a religious obligation.
(f) Carry out extensive de-radicalisation campaigns in the most vulnerable areas.
Given the new realities discussed above, universities and higher education institutions will need to strategise and enhance efforts to control the threat of radicalisation. The presence of the educated among the ranks of the religious militants is by itself a dangerous sign; and should trigger urgent efforts to tackle religious extremism in education system. The federal and provincial governments need to pay heed to this trend when planning and reviewing counter-terrorism measures.
The authorities — both elected and unelected — should also carefully review the curricula taught in our universities and find ways of including broader liberal arts components. They must realise that our students ought to be exposed to a diversity of worldviews through a mandatory social science and humanities component, regardless of their specific degree programme, in view of the increasingly globalised world economy we inhabit today.