University education and radicalization in Pakistan
Students in most engineering universities and medical colleges face the same indoctrination in Pakistan’s ‘ideology’ that they did in high school
The convicted terrorist Saad Aziz, currently on death row, is Pakistan’s most prominent “educated” terrorist. He attended the prestigious Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in Karachi, and before that studied for his O’ and A’ levels at Beaconhouse and Lyceum schools, respectively. In April 2015, Aziz killed Sabeen Mahmud, the founder of The Second Floor (T2F), a space dedicated to progressive and liberal discourse in Karachi. Aziz claimed to have been angered by Mahmud’s anti-Taliban, anti-mullah (and anti-Red Mosque) pronouncements—even her spreading of Valentine’s Day cheer. A few weeks after Aziz killed Mahmud, he confessed to being one of the militants who killed 46 Ismaili Shias on a bus they were riding to work.
There are legitimate doubts about whether jihadism drove Aziz to commit these crimes, or whether a connection with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies played a role in his actions or his confession. The day she was killed, Mahmud had convened Baloch activists for a public event at T2F. Security agencies have a long history of shutting down Baloch dissenters, and asked for a similar event that month at the Lahore University of Management Sciences to be cancelled. The story of Aziz’s radicalization presented by the joint investigation team report, though shocking, was almost too clean, and left questions unanswered; his coolness during his confession also sowed doubt in his story. Nevertheless, Aziz’s case offers a useful starting point for how to think about higher education, extremism, and radicalization in Pakistan.
Drawing conclusions about violent extremism from data is something of a flawed exercise because of the tiny numbers that ultimately engage in violence. Data, however, can help us draw conclusions about attitudes in the population. But, for violence, the attempt should not be to find socio-demographic correlates but to figure out what the individual stories of violent terrorists tell us about radicalization, if anything. Extremist views and violence are connected—not because everyone with radical attitudes becomes violent, but because radicalization provides the base for violent extremism, and a logistical and ideological support network, as it were, for militancy.
As I show in my new book, Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, And The State, an analysis of polling data reveals that those with some university education are significantly more unfavourable toward all terrorist groups (al-Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban) relative to those with less education. That is good news. But similar percentages of university-educated respondents expressed favourable views toward terrorist groups as those who never attended school (university- educated respondents are much more certain of their views, so a higher percentage responded to the question). And for views on apostasy, university education makes no difference. University- educated individuals are as likely to believe (around 75%!) in death penalty for apostasy as those who never attended school.
The content of university education is a mixed bag in Pakistan. A few elite, private universities, like the Lahore University of Management Sciences, are very liberal. But even in interviews with students studying history and political science at a public university in Lahore, I found them openly debating and challenging the religious framing of the Pakistani national narrative. The main factors that influenced them were studying the politics and history of other parts of the world, and a professor who engaged with them and taught them to question prevalent narratives. But students in most engineering universities and medical colleges face the same indoctrination in Pakistan’s “ideology” that they did in high school. And student wings of Islamist parties—in particular the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba—threaten progressive discourse on many university campuses. They aim to disrupt cultural events and prevent meaningful debate.
Pakistan has seen violence on its university campuses. A year ago, a mob of students at Abdul Wali Khan university beat fellow student Mashal Khan to death on charges of blasphemy, armed with a militant religious zeal—and a desire to take Pakistan’s laws in its own hands—that their university education was unable to diminish.
The story of Aziz’s radicalization, if in fact true, is instructive. He started showing a religious zeal while at IBA, and turning away from liberal principles; while at college, he wrote about religion and the clash of civilizations. But it was a peer he met during an internship—ironically at a multinational firm—who really set him on the path to radicalization. He went to Waziristan under his influence, where he appears to have been ideologically and physically trained by jihadists. He confessed to being moved by videos of the suffering of Muslims around the world, including in sectarian violence—part of the terrorist propaganda toolkit.
There are two missing links here. The first is personality based. What really drove Aziz to the jihadist camp in Waziristan? Researchers have shown that the factors that propelled youth to join al-Qaeda were one or more of the following: a desire for power or status; for revenge; for identity; or for thrill. Others have suggested a deep alienation, a need for social belonging. We don’t know what happened in Aziz’s case, but he appears to have had a solid and “normal” family structure around him. He ran his family’s restaurant.
The second puzzle is why Aziz’s education wasn’t able to counter the propaganda he received. After all, his was no rote learning-based conservative government curriculum, or entirely religious, biased madrassa schooling that could be blamed for a susceptibility to militant rhetoric. There is really no resolution to this other than to acknowledge that while on average, those educated in the British-based education system have more tolerant attitudes than those educated in public schools and madrassas (as Tariq Rahman’s research shows), Aziz was an exception, or his personal motivations were too strong, and ultimately overpowered him.
Madiha Afzal is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, And The State.
This is part of the Young Asian Writers series, a Mint initiative to bring young voices from different Asian countries to the fore.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org