KLF: Are universities breeding terrorists?

February 10, 2018




By Minerwa Tahir

KARACHI: Today, Valentine's Day cannot be celebrated. A girl and a boy shouldn't sit together on campus even if it's for a discussion.

Muhammad Ali Shaikh, a Karachi-based scholar and the vice-chancellor (VC) of Sindh Madressatul Islam University, said this while commenting on the increasing level of intolerance in society. He was one of the panelists at a discussion, titled 'Universities or Nurseries of Terrorism?', held at the 9th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) on Wednesday. Other panelists were Mehtab S. Karim, founding VC of Malir University of Science and Technology, Wasif Rizvi, founding president of Habib University, Talib Karim, the president of Institute of Business Management (IoBM) and Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Dean and Director Farrukh Iqbal. Baela Raza Jamil, the CEO of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi, was moderating the session.

Talking about the involvement of university students in terrorism, Mehtab Karim pointed out that 65% of our population comprises youth. He quoted a recent report on terrorism that lists Pakistan in the top five countries. According to him, the common factors among the countries topping the list for terrorism were their religion and a bulk of younger population.

"Terrorism breeds in a context," said the moderator.

According to Talib Karim, rising terrorist involvement of university students was a matter of concern as administrators. "We need to take steps to ensure that these kinds of incidents do not occur," he said, adding that we need to find out the reasons behind the radicalization of our youth. According to him, his university is measuring the emotional quotient of its students to monitor their thinking. "We need to engage our youth," he said.

When asked if IoBM was indirectly appeasing the mindset of the killers of Mashal Khan by giving in to radicals' whims over dress codes, Talib said, "There is a code of discipline and the dress code is one of those codes." He then detailed how "vibrant" his university's atmosphere is.

Talking about terrorism at universities, Muhammad Ali Shaikh contended that while he agrees that radicalization is taking place, it is an exaggerated claim to say that universities are "nurseries of terrorism". "The state has not yet arrived that universities become nurseries of terrorism," he said.

Wasif Rizvi also pointed out that the title of the session was problematic. "The term 'nurseries' implies that it's a systematic thing," he said. "Nevertheless, it's a self-evident issue."

According to him, it's not what universities are doing regarding terrorism but what they are not doing things. "Our upper middle clas had very successfully other-ed the terrorists. Other-ing of terrorists was very convenient for us," he said. Quoting a study conducted by the British Council, he said that most of the terrorists across the world belonged to the pure sciences disciplines, such as medicine and engineering. He added that there were barely any sociologists, filmmakers or anthropologists who had carried out terrorist activity.

He pointed out that the phenomena of youth radicalization was not new and that it was military dictator Ayub Khan who, one day, decided that universities in Pakistan will only offer medicine and engineering disciplines. "If you are not intellectually refined, you have never been challenged, you form a circle around you," he said. He added that if you have friends on social media from just your discipline of, say, engineering, then you have a problem. "They [pure sciences students] are not robots," he said. "They also want to do something else."

Similarly, IBA's Farrukh Iqbal was of the view that the title was such a "powerful metaphor, which sets off a picture in your mind" about young minds being nurtured in a nursery along terrorism ideals. He quoted the Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog Princeton. "The authors found that engineers are massively over-represented in their sample," he said, adding that they found that engineers are again over-represented even in Western jihadis. He went on to add that the authors found little evidence to support the view that engineers were becoming members of jihadi groups because of frustrated careers, lack of jobs or unfulfilled expectations. "They chose to enlist voluntarily," he said.

"The choice of discipline actually reflects underlying personal traits," he said, quoting the authors' findings. "Certain types of people gravitate towards engineering. They come to the closure that those with a need for cognitive closure are more likely to choose engineering. Where does this lead us? There is some connection between violent extremism and education but it arises from preexisting personality traits." So, it's not engineering, it's personality traits.