Pakistan’s universities: Temples of learning or breeding grounds for terror?

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KARACHI: Soon after the attempted assassination on September 2 of Khawaja Izharul Hassan, leader of the opposition in Pakistan’s provincial assembly of Sindh, all institutions of higher learning in the province came under intense official pressure to allow intelligence monitoring of their students.
The attack was planned and executed by Ansarul Shariah Pakistan, an Al Qaeda-inspired militant group established in February by a group of students, including two former students of Karachi University. Nevertheless, the idea of intelligence monitoring has provoked opposition among many university staff. “Several admissions to the MPhil and PhD programs have recently been canceled on the recommendation of intelligence agencies,” said one staff member at Karachi University. “Apart from that, future recruitment of faculty members and student admissions are likely to take place after security clearance.”
Dr. Ahmed Qadri, convener of the MPhil-PhD admission committee, said there was “no extremist network operating on the campus.”
“No student has been expelled from the university,” he said. “If a student is involved in terrorist activity, it can be described as his individual act. We have a comprehensive monitoring system that relies on student advisers and team of teachers.”
However, one faculty member complained: “Unnecessary security checks are disturbing the academic environment of our universities. Instead of addressing the root causes of terrorism, we are targeting education institutes on the pretext of intelligence monitoring.”
Another teacher denied that universities in Karachi had become a breeding ground for terrorists. “We know that some officials of law enforcement agencies were helping militant activities in the past. Should we then hold their entire institutions responsible for such acts?
“Education institutes are required to promote freedom of expression. However, we have been witnessing uninvited appearances by the army’s spokesperson on the campus, lecturing students.”
Raja Umar Khattab, a counterterrorism officer, recalled the days when individuals and groups openly encouraged university students to participate in violent activities. Before 2001, the Pakistani state used these groups to advance its own security interests in the region, and it was not surprising that its officials turned a blind eye to such activities. This ended after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, when the state realize that its policy of using non-state actors in its neighborhood was no longer sustainable.
“The open recruitment may have come to a halt,” said Khattab, “but terrorist outfits have not stopped looking for young and impressionable minds on university campuses. Many of these students are already affiliated with different religious groups.
“And with the advent of social media, anyone can be radicalized. This implies that our intelligence agencies need to improvise and build larger networks on university campuses.”
Victims who have suffered from the violent actions of radicalized students claim that the problem runs much deeper. Dr. Hassan Auj, whose father, Shakeel Auj, was killed by Al-Qaeda in 2014 for articulating enlightened views in public, told Arab News that the faculty members of many universities lacked a moderate world view.
“To address the problem of radicalization on campuses,” he said, “teachers must be subjected to a thorough psychological screening program. After all, they can push their students toward — or away from — the path of violent extremism.”
In October 2015, law enforcement agencies arrested Owais Raheel, who taught probability, statistical inference and operations management at Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, for projecting the ideas of a proscribed group, Hizbut Tahrir. Raheel’s strategy was to talk about Islam during the first few minutes of his lecture, which enabled him to identify students who looked interested in religion and spend time with them outside the classroom.
On July 12, 2017, the Sindh Police invited vice-chancellors of 23 public and 17 private universities to attend a meeting to discuss the radicalization of students. It emerged that only the Bahria University, Karachi, which is owned and operated by the Pakistan Navy, had a comprehensive monitoring mechanism to deal with the issue.
Representatives of other universities said their student adviser offices were vigilant, but the vice-chancellor of one public university admitted that these departments lacked adequate funding, and that the advisers were hesitant to report suspicious students because they feared for their own lives.
The university heads were advised to include psychologists on the interview panels for admitting new students. Apart from that, counterterrorism officials recommended that universities use their notice boards to display the Fourth Schedule, a list of potentially dangerous individuals mostly belonging to proscribed organizations. The people on the list are not allowed to visit any institution of learning, to prevent them from propagating their views among young students. According to the Counterterrorism Department of Sindh Police, the measure is likely to create awareness among students about the danger of following these people, their organizations, and other people sympathetic to their views. Officials believe this is one way of discouraging campus radicalization.
At the meeting with Sindh police, Dr. Noshad A. Sheikh, of Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences in Jamshoro, said the university was under pressure to re-admit a female student, Noreen Leghari, who was arrested in April this year while working for a local offshoot of Daesh in Lahore. Police say Leghari volunteered as a suicide bomber.
Sheikh declined to say who was applying pressure on the university. “We have resisted so far since we believe her re-entry, even if she has been deradicalized, is likely to have a negative impact on our students,” he said.
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Author: Naimat

Karachi based journalist, writing on national and international issues.

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