The Radicals of Modern Universities

April 04, 2019

“The next generation of militants is more likely to have university education rather than a seminary background.” 

– Sanaullah Abbasi, Chief Sindh Counter Terrorism Department

For long, institutions of modern education were considered to be a bulwark against the spread of extremist ideologies. And a typical extremist militant coming from a religious seminary and an impoverished background captured popular imagination for decades. Clearly, this view has proved simplistic at best as case studies show that modern education has been anything but a guarantee against radical ideologies. The alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was a graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, while Omar Saeed Shaikh, convicted in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, studied at the London School of Economics. These and other such cases indicate that modern secular education has more than often failed to deter well-educated people from walking the path to violent extremism and terrorism.

Many universities in Pakistan have been home to violent and radical student groups for decades, especially since the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands of young men from Pakistan played the footsoldiers. Most of the violent elements at university campuses act as parts of ‘student wings’ of various religious political parties. A report by the counter terrorism department (CTD) of Sindh in 2016 revealed that out of 500 suspected militants held in custody, 134 had bachelor’s or masters’ degrees while another 63 of them passed middle of the road level tests. The CTD finding was scary to say the least as it indicated the changing dynamics of religious extremism and terrorism. Here we have a look at some cases in which students educated in modern learning at Pakistan’s reputable universities chose the way of extremism and violence willingly.

A guitarist student murdered for playing guitar

Adnan Abdul Qadir was a final-year student at the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) Peshawar. Hailing from Bannu city, Qadir liked playing guitar in his hostel room. His love for guitar had enraged his fellow students affiliated with the Islami Jamiat Tuleba (IJT) who viewed Qadir’s hobby as offensive and un-Islamic. Following a scuffle with Qadir over the issue of guitar on March 12, 2010, students allegedly linked to IJT stormed his hostel room and beat him into pulp. A week later, Qadir died at a local hospital. His murder led to clashes between student wings belonging to Islamist and nationalist groups.

IBA graduate turns into a mass murderer

Saad Aziz graduated from one of Pakistan’s sought-after educational institutions, the Institute of Business Administration Karachi, with a business degree in 2011. Aziz’s arrest and confessions following his involvement in some of the most gruesome terrorist attacks in Karachi shattered the preconceived notions about a typical terrorist. He planned and executed an assassination attempt on Debra Lobo, an American educationist who served as vice principal of Jinnah Dental College in Karachi. Lobo was critically injured, but survived. However, his next target Sabeen Mehmood, a social activist, was not so fortunate.

Aziz and his terror gang also carried out one of the most gruesome terrorist attacks against Karachi’s Ismaeli community. They intercepted a bus loaded with the members of Ismaeli community at Safoora Goth and opened indiscriminate firing, killing 52 people including women and children in 2015. In May 2016, a military court handed down death sentences to Saad Aziz and his other accomplices.

A female doctor who wanted to bomb a church

Noreen Leghari was a female student of 2nd year at the Liaqat Medical University. On intelligence tipoff, the security forces arrested Leghari from her home in Lahore. The agencies recovered two suicide vests, grenades, and bullets from her possession. She was to be used as a suicide bomber at a church on Easter. She was later released from custody. Reports said she was inspired by the terrorist group Islamic State (Daesh) to carry out an act of terror. Leghari had reportedly been brainwashed and recruited by the terror group on the internet. Commenting on the case, the Pakistan military spokesman said Leghari had been saved well before her immature mind was brainwashed by militants.

Students threaten to break Nobel laureate’s legs

Students of the Quaid Azam University in Islamabad threatened to break Dr. Abdus Salam’s legs if he dared to enter the university premises for delivering a lecture in the 1980s. Salam was no ordinary person; he was the first Pakistani theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979.  According to Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy, “a ceremony was organized to honor Dr Salam, and was to be held at QAU’s Department of Physics, which was founded by one of his former students, Dr Riazuddin.” Dr Salam arrived in Islamabad to attend the ceremony, but couldn’t enter the QAU premises due to fierce agitation started by the students of Jamaat-e-Islami. Previously, Salam had left Pakistan in protest after a constitutional amendment declared the Ahmadis as non-Muslims in 1974.

A bright student is lynched on fabricated blasphemy charge

Mashal Khan was brutally lynched by a mob of his fellow students at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan in 2017. He was accused of insulting the Muslim faith during a heated debate over religion with his fellow students. Later, a court ruled the charge was fabricated and baseless. On April 13, 2017, a rumor raced through the university campus that Mashaal had insulted religion. As the rumor took off, students burning with rage broke into his hostel room and hauled him out in the open. A video of the lynching circulated on social media showed Mashaal being beaten, stepped on, and shot at pointblank. The mob keeps assaulting his lifeless body even after he dies.

Later, when his body was taken to his hometown of Swabi for burial, many of his neighbors avoided the last rites because of his alleged crime. The prayer leader also refused to lead the funeral prayer of Mashaal. So his family had to request a technician to do the job.

Student stabs his professor for “un-Islamic” welcome reception

The latest victim of the educated extremist was Prof. Khalid Hameed who was stabbed in the head and killed in his university office by a 5th-semester bachelor student on March 20, 2019. Hameed was the head of the English department at Sadiq Egerton College in Bahawalpur. According to media reports, Prof. Hameed had arranged a gender-mix welcome reception for new students. The culprit viewed the ‘welcome party’ as un-Islamic and obscene. Following his arrest by the police, the student said, “He (the professor) used to bark a lot against Islam. He would say a lot of things against Islam every day. It is good that he is now dead. I’m content and thanks to Allah that the professor is dead now.” Initial investigation by the police indicates the culprit has no links to any religious or militant organization.

Students invoke blasphemy and put professor behind bars

Prof. Junaid Hafeez was arrested on March 13, 2013 for allegedly committing blasphemy. The charge was based on alleged comments posted on a facebook page, which Hafeez denies. Rashid Rehman, a lawyer and human rights activist, who defended Hafeez against the charges was shot dead in his office in Multan. A Fulbright scholar, Hafeez was a visiting faculty at the department of English literature at the Bahauddin Zakariya University of Multan. The accusation of blasphemy was made by some of Hafeez’s own students who belonged to Islami Jamiat Tulba (IJT) of the Jamaat Islami. They circulated a pamphlet at the campus, accusing Hafeez of administering a facebook page where blasphemous material was allegedly posted. The pamphlet incited a mob of violent students demanding action against the professor.

The university administration was the first to respond by terminating Hafeez’s teaching contract. Some media reports claim Hafeez was framed in the case in order to elbow him out as a candidate for the permanent faculty position at the university. With strong academic credentials, Hafeez was the favorite candidate for the position. So, most probably blasphemy was invoked to hunt him down for good. He has been languishing in prison since 2013 while his case has been transferring from one court to the other without end. And his trial goes on.

Are universities on an Islamization drive?

In recent years, many universities have apparently gone on what some view as an Islamization drive by implementing measures that seek to redefine how the male and female students dress up and interact with each other on campuses. For instance, just earlier this year, Bahria University Islamabad directed the male and female students to keep a minimum distance of 6 inches while sitting or standing together. It also barred female students from wearing jeans, tights, and trousers, and warned to slap a fine of rupees 5000 on the violators. In addition, it also segregated the university cafeterias on gender basis, restricting the female students to only one of the four cafeterias.

Justifying the measure, Bahria University spokesperson Mahwish Kamran said the move aimed at making the students follow the cultural norms of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Likewise, in 2018, the International Islamic University (IIU) Islamabad prohibited female students from wearing tights, sleeveless shirts, and high heels and made head-scarf mandatory for all female students. It similarly warned of strict disciplinary action in case of non-compliance.

Other universities that launched similar campaigns to regulate the interaction and attire of students on religious lines include IBA, Iqra University, NUST, UET, Isra University, Karachi University, Punjab University, and Quaid Azam University. With acts of violent extremism on campuses and moral policing by university administrations growing proportionately, a need is felt for a thorough study to ascertain if there is a relationship between the two. The universities are the intellectual powerhouses of a country where future leaders in all fields are produced. The government might be needing to invest in studies to understand the phenomena of violent extremism at the universities so that appropriate measures could be taken to contain the spread of radicalism and intolerance in educational institutions.