Radicalisation at universities

Hamid Hussain

Hamid Hussain

The National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism has a 20 point agenda; none among them talks about the radicalization in public or private sector universities or colleges.

The killing of a college principal on January 22 by one of his students in Charsadda over perceived blasphemy is yet another grim reminder that how distorted interpretation of religion is vigorously being injected into both politics and society; extremism and militancy are permeating inside universities and colleges quickly that will become Pakistan’s next major counterterrorism challenge. This mob justice mentality will continue to take lives unless the state institutions and the whole society make soul searching and take some serious measures to stem the rising tide of intolerance and exploitation of religion.

The National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism has a 20 point agenda; none among them talks about the radicalization in public or private sector universities or colleges.  On February 26, 2014, Pakistan unveiled its first ever National Internal Security Policy (NISP) – a 94-page document. The policy had 30 references to Madrassas (religious seminaries), but not a single reference to universities. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) was established under the NISP. The page 85-93 of the NACTA document says the body should have a human resource of 314 personnel, and a directorate of research and coordination to oversee a total of eight departments from national narrative to reintegration.  The directorate has a department for “Mosque and Madrassa,” but none for universities. The state institutions seem totally oblivious or lenient towards the mushroom growth of madressahs and mosques where curriculum and literature based on hate sectarian bent of mind with narrow worldview is taught. Even the government at federal and provincial levels has failed to bring the seminaries being run under eight Wafaqul Madaris (federations of seminaries) under the ambit of a single regulatory authority of education, check their sources of funding.

NACTA and the Ministry of Interior held consultations with stakeholders from January 16 to 18 to deliberate upon a roadmap for framing security plan for next five years (2018-2023). This is an opportunity to focus on the violence and militancy at universities which was neglected in the last NISP. The state needs to build a strong defence against mob psyche and this must be part of counterterrorism strategy under the new security plan. The state cannot and must not remain silent or promote a specific narrative wherein common people are urged to challenge the writ of the state.

Security forces arrested 60,420 people across Pakistan in 54,376 combing operations after the approval of the NAP. Among the total arrested, there are nearly two dozen university teachers from various public sector universities all over Pakistan — Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Multan, Faisalabad, Sargodha, Peshawar, Swat, Mardan, and Muzaffarabad.

Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) arrested more than 1,600 terrorists associated with different banned outfits during combing operations from 2014-2017 in the province. Out of the 1,600 arrested, 72 were militants were university graduates.

Another upsetting fact is that a majority of the arrested men are between the ages of 20 and 30. Around 378 of the held militants were from the age group of 20 to 25 while another 330 were from 26 to 30 years old. The most disturbing and worrisome fact is indoctrination and recruitment of teenagers. This could be gauged from the CTD report that 140 of those arrested were aged 14 to 19 years.

The debate on countering violent extremism in Pakistan is completely focused on religious seminaries and other religious organisations. The predominant perception among the government, in society and outside world is that violent extremism and terrorism are nurtured solely by the religious seminaries. Hence, in the past decade we have seen that a larger amount of social and governmental attention has been on the seminaries. While, in the shadow of this oblivion, universities kept growing more radical and produced “thinking terrorists.” This lack of focus on university faculties and students is alarming, as some of the most brutal and terrorising acts of terror were planned, supported and carried out by the educated, middle class terrorists.

“Militancy on university campuses is quickly becoming Pakistan’s next major counterterrorism challenge,” the Global Fellow at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Huma Yusuf wrote in West Point’s CTC Sentinel. “But there is no strategy yet to confront what officials fear is growing radicalisation among Pakistan’s affluent, middle class population, particularly university students.”

Radicalisation at the university campuses in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon. The first known arrests were made in Karachi in 2004 when two-brother faculty members — Dr Akmal Waheed and Dr Arshad Waheed — were arrested from the University of Karachi. But courts exonerated them of terror links in 2006. They inspired a huge number of students through their lectures and jihadist literature to join the “Holy War” in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). These were the university students who formed “Punjabi Mujahidin” in 2007, and the terrorist organisation Jundullah that is linked with al-Qaeda was also formed by the university student, Attaur Rehman. Shahid Khan aka Qari Shahid, who carried out the Mehran Naval Base attack in Karachi in May 2011, was also a political science graduate.

The move of extremist and terrorist groups to penetrate the universities is strategic, as militants with higher education are in better positions to plan sophisticated attacks, infiltrate elite government and military circles, and facilitate the terrorist groups in and outside Pakistan to carry out attacks.

There are 179 degree awarding institutions in Pakistan with a much higher number of their affiliated campuses across Pakistan where hundreds of thousands of students study. But there is no coherent peace-building or countering violent extremism programme running in most, if not all, universities. It is extremely important to counter the narratives of extremist and violent organisations, as the number of students at risk of exposure to extremist ideologies grows in absence of any such programme or effort either by the government or the civil society.

The NACTA under its NISP 2018-2023 must focus on the increasing extremism and violence at universities, overhaul curriculum and should closely work with civil society and media, elected and administrative officials of the district governments, educators and mind-makers (university faculties).

The elected district members are from the local communities, their positions empower them immensely: socially, politically and administratively. They are in a uniquely strong position to spearhead the countering violent extremism processes both at the governmental, and community levels. But in the absence of any understanding and capacity on the countering violent extremism related subjects, they are unable to play any role and therefore it should be given due attention in the NISP 2018-2023 as to how the democratic leaders at the grass root level can be involved in the process.

The targeted segments are the opinion multipliers, narrative builders (civil society and media), well connected with their communities, yield executive and political powers (elected and administrative officials of the district governments), educators and university faculties, and future leaders and building-blocks of the Pakistani society (students). All the stakeholders must be taken onboard to work together in countering the extremism, violence, hatred, disaffection, political/religious falsehoods, and hateful propaganda against the other nations and peoples.

Writer: Hamid Hussain: The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist. He tweets at @Hamidlawangeen

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