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Extremist minds on campus

September 10, 2017

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IRRESPECTIVE of who had put it forth, the proposal to securitise educational campuses is a terrible idea. Hopefully, it won’t be approved as it would add to our past failures to effectively deal with the country’s education and security affairs.

The media hype around the arrest of some university-educated terrorists of the Ansarul Sharia group in Karachi gives the impression that universities have become a breeding ground for violent extremism. This is a simplistic interpretation of a complex phenomenon.

The suggestion to control campuses through security institutions is as bad as the response of some official quarters that welcomed the idea. It is an indication not only of the lack of empirical wisdom among those dealing with violent extremism — our most critical challenge — but also their approach to academic institutions. Rather than facilitating an independent and fair academic, intellectual and research atmosphere on campuses, the government apparently deems educational institutions mere degree-awarding factories — perhaps that is why it believes that the objective can be achieved even in a controlled atmosphere. Such measures, however, would worsen the persisting academic crisis in universities.

The challenge of extremism is far more complex and deep rooted than is understood by policymakers. Extremist tendencies are common in all segments of society, irrespective of their socioeconomic status and educational backgrounds. A study carried out last year by the Sindh Counter Terrorism Department revealed the diverse educational backgrounds of 500 detained suspected militants. According to the study, 202 had not received any education at all. Among the literate, 134 had Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees, 63 were matriculates, while 101 had studied up to class nine. The institutional background of these suspects was also diverse as 169 had studied at madressahs, 98 at public schools and 92 at private institutions.

The challenge of extremism is far more complex and deep rooted than is understood by policymakers.

The trends of violent and non-violent extremism amongst educated youth are cause for concern as they represent technically skilled and academically strong individuals — and such extremism is a great loss of the nation’s talent. At the same time, such qualified individuals inject new energy in terrorist groups, as happened in the case of the Ansarul Sharia which recently triggered a new wave of violence in Karachi.

The extent to which educational institutions’ curricula contribute to the construction of extremist minds is debatable. One thing, however, is clear: certain religious narratives persist in the country, and largely act as factors of violent and non-violent extremism. As these narratives are widespread, the process of ideological radicalism or extremism can take place anywhere, including in educational institutions, mosques, homes, neighbourhoods, even cyberspace.

One can’t deny the fact that student wings of religio-political parties and of sectarian, charitable, radical and banned militant organisations are still active on educational campuses. These wings have a key role in promoting religious extremism amongst students and have an array of tools at their disposal to increase their influence. They consistently rely on radical literature and publications and disseminate the message not only through the printed word but also through CDs, DVDs, and the social media, depending on which group or class they are targeting. For instance, social media is an important propagation and recruitment tool for organisations such as the militant Islamic State group, and Al Qaeda as well as radical outfits like Hizbut Tahrir. Sectarian and tribal militants still prefer printed publications though they are also increasingly inclined to use different apps to communicate.

That radicalisation among educated youth is a recent phenomenon is an evolving myth. Public-sector educational institutions have remained the primary target of militant organisations since the 1980s, under state patronage to boost a ‘jihad’ culture in the country. There will be hardly a town in Pakistan that doesn’t have a street or road named after the martyred of Kashmir or Afghanistan, and most of them studied in some mainstream school, college or university.

After 9/11 it became difficult for militants to launch their recruitment campaigns in public spaces. As an alternative, they first established their student wings with cover names and then targeted teachers and encouraged them to form ‘jihadi study circles’ on their campuses. After the Lal Masjid crisis in 2007, they amended their strategies, changed their mode of communication and became sophisticated in their recruitment operations. During the past decade, the number of multiple types of international, regional and local militant and radical groups has increased in the country; they compete to make their calls more attractive, thus hoping to ensnare the best minds.

Religiously motivated radicals and militants are still operating overtly and covertly on campuses. While administrations fear radical elements and are thus reluctant to take action against them, the government is neither willing to provide any protection to the administrations nor take on such elements itself. Both the administrations and the government try to silence alternative and moderate voices on campuses.

The ban on student unions badly hurts the academic and democratic atmosphere of campuses. The fear that student groups will disturb the atmosphere is based on myopic perceptions. Most studies on the subject recommend that the long-term effectiveness of student unions should not be undermined by the excuse of short-lived tensions. The government should ban the student wings of religious and militant organisations and focus on breaking the radical groups’ nexus with teachers and students. This can be achieved through allowing students to live in an open academic and political atmosphere. The securitisation of campuses will further restrict free spaces and the radicals will continue to invent new ways to survive and encroach.

The administrations of colleges and universities can take some initiatives themselves to secure their campuses from the influence of extremists. They can form student-teacher vigilance committees to spot the activities of radical groups on their premises and to promote the culture of sharing and dialogue. The government can sensitise teachers about the threat and organise refresher courses for this purpose.

Obviously, teachers and students would have more creative and practical solutions in their minds; administrations and the government should have to listen to them and include their voices in collective decisions for safe and secure campuses in the country.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2017