Written By: Hussain H. Zaidi
To what extent have our academic institutions been responsible for the growth of religious extremism or radicalization? And how effective they have been in responding to the challenge thrown up by the menace? Since schools, colleges, and universities do not operate in a vacuum — rather they constantly interact with other institutions, we need to have a holistic view of the problem.
Like it or lump it, the institutions of higher learning in Pakistan are increasingly becoming susceptible to religious extremism. The 2015 Safoora Chowk carnage, the shocking death of Mashal Khan at the hands of his fellow students, and the recent attempted assassination of an MQM MPA, all bear the blood-stained footprints of educated youth gone berserk in the name of faith. While some may dismiss the on-campus extremism threat as no more than a kerfuffle, it has caused the shafts of anxiety and fear run through society.
Why is extremism casting a pall over campuses? Were the perpetrators of the attacks, such as the aforementioned, simply knocked dead by a foul ideology? Or is there something more to the growing radicalization? What does this fatal trend prefigure? And how the malady is to be treated?
The Britannica Encyclopedia defines a radical as a person who desires extreme change of the entire social order or part thereof. It follows, therefore, that radicalization is the process which seeks to turn the social order upside down. Radicalization not only represents a potent challenge to the social order, the former is also, in large measures, occasioned by the contradictions inherent in the latter. Thus it seems in order to expatiate upon the concept of social order as the starting point of our discussion.
A society, like an organism, is a complex of various components: institutions, roles, statuses, beliefs, norms, and values. The interaction among these components constitutes the social order. The edifice of social order rests on shared expectations that the members of a society hold towards one another. These expectations stipulate that certain norms and standards, having their sanction in law, morality, or simply utility, would be observed and certain others shunned. The failure to fulfil these shared expectations gives a jolt to the social order.
It follows that the radicalization of the Pakistani society cannot be set down to a single cause; rather it is a function of multiple factors acting in tandem. Therefore, de-radicalization requires a holistic approach taking into account all the factors which have contributed to the growth of extremism. Besides, since campuses are part of society, focusing only on them to the exclusion of other institutions will not be of much avail.
Social order is maintained through both formal and informal institutions, such as the state, academia, media, and family. Each institution has methods at its disposal to keep the social order intact. The state has both carrot — distribution of power, wealth and other resources; and stick — law, police, agencies, courts. The media have the power to inform, educate, and form opinion. They not only present the facts but also interpret them and thus reconstruct the social reality. The growth of the internet and the electronic media has ratcheted up the role of the fourth pillar of the state in maintaining social order. Family is the nursery in which the individual starts internalizing social norms and values. During the formative years of every person, family exercises greater influence than any other institution. Related to family is the peer groups, the circles in which an individual moves. Academic institutions mould as well as build on what a person has acquired from the family. Together with the family, they are the principal source of biases and prejudices that an individual has on his mind.
These institutions of social control have a dual role. They may strengthen the social order and they may weaken it. Academic institutions may broaden the student’s mental horizon, and may foster in him the habit to think critically and objectively; at the same time, they may hobble critical thinking and intellectual development and may promote a regressive outlook on life. The media may be a powerful source of information and social harmony but they may become an agent of disinformation and anarchy.
The social order is constantly being challenged by counter values, beliefs and behavior patterns. The institutions must help the social order to adjust itself to these social and cultural changes. The ability to grapple with this challenge depends on two factors: the strength and outlook of the institutions and the enormity of the counter values.
It is vital that critical thinking is promoted in academic institutions. Instead of being merely an instrument of earning degrees, education should also serve as an instrument of problem solving in a constructive way. Emphasis should be placed on fostering the spirit of enquiry and skepticism among students, so that they can think and decide for themselves rather than blindly subscribe to various narratives on and outside the campus.
To what extent have our academic institutions been responsible for the growth of religious extremism or radicalization? And how effective they have been in responding to the challenge thrown up by the menace? Since schools, colleges, and universities do not operate in a vacuum — rather they constantly interact with other institutions, we need to have a holistic view of the problem. Therefore, the questions may be reframed as: To what extent have our institutions been responsible for the growth of religious extremism or radicalization, and how effective they have been in responding to the challenge thrown up by the menace? Since schools, colleges, and universities do not operate in a vacuum — rather they constantly interact with other institutions, we need to have a holistic view of the problem.
Radicalization in case of Pakistan is driven by an apocalyptic ideology or narrative. The ideology sees a perennial conflict between Islam and opposing forces or ideologies. Since these forces are perceived to be dead set on annihilating Islam, the two can’t co-exist. One must crush the other. A secondary assumption is that the anti-Muslim elements — governments, multinational enterprises, international NGOs — are bent upon obliterating Islamic culture and values in the name of freedom of expression, human rights and fundamental liberties. The narrative makes it obligatory upon every Muslim to fight the evil forces to frustrate their “nefarious” designs.
During the formative years of every person, family exercises greater influence than any other institution. Related to family is the peer groups, the circles in which an individual moves. Academic institutions mould as well as build on what a person has acquired from the family.
Another assumption considers Pakistan to be the only ideological state in the contemporary world that was created for the propagation of Islam; as such it was meant to be the center of Muslim unity. However, regrettably, instead of making tangible progress towards Islamization, the society was westernized, secularized and vulgarized. It became a hotbed of corruption, obscenity, and injustice. The country, therefore, must be purged of such baneful influence by setting up an “Islamic” society — by force if need be.
The narrative also provides for repudiation of “alien” doctrines, rituals and moral standards. Hence, those who profess a different creed or practice a different moral standard are looked upon as an incarnation of evil. All such wicked or impious people have to be reformed — by preaching or by force — or eliminated.
Where did this narrative come from? To be sure, the narrative always existed in an attenuated but essential form in Pakistan. One of the factors that inordinately delayed constitution-making was the split on the place that religion would hold in the country’s political system. The constitution makers responded by making Islam the state religion and incorporating certain Islamic principles into the fundamental law of the land. These “Islamic features” of the constitution, however, have never satisfied the clergy and similar minds for being inconsistent with their basic narrative.
The growth of the internet, particularly social media, has provided a powerful platform to express the disillusionment and connect with extremist organizations. The extremists have been remarkably adroit in the use of the internet.
The narrative, which has manifested itself time and again in both sectarian and non-sectarian bloodbath, gained wide currency with the involvement of Pakistan in the Afghan war precipitated by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For the exponents of the narrative, the war could not have provided a more convincing instance of an ideological entity spearheading the warriors of Islam (the mujahideen) in facing and finally defeating a mighty pagan empire. Regrettably, the war narrative was sponsored by the state.
The Afghan war and its aftermath threw up some serious challenges for Pakistan’s social order. It made for the “Kalashnikov culture” to take root in the country, as lethal weapons were made available easily and cheaply. Later, these weapons were used for sectarian violence. The “jihadi” factories set up in the north-western part of the country made our already “lawless” tribal areas a hotbed of militancy, where militants from any part of the world could find refuge. Recruitment of youth in large numbers to fight alongside their Afghan brothers contributed in the main to our young generation’s fascination with the holy war. Private armies or lashkars began to raise their head. Textbooks eulogized jihad as the foremost virtue of every Muslim, without cautioning that only the state, and not private individuals or organizations, was competent to declare the holy war.
The post 9/11 United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, which pulled down the “Islamic” regime of the Taliban, and the 2003 Iraq war, further strengthened the narrative that Islam was in grave danger and that a beleaguered Muslim community must fight fire with fire. Since the Pakistan government had sided with the “enemies” of Islam, the obligation of jihad upon non-state actors became even greater. The holy war should be directed not only against non-Muslims but also the members of the faith who had gone astray — the state, followers of other sects, liberals, etc. The rise of Daesh, which unlike al-Qaeda, was able to carve out a territory for itself and put in place a khilafat, added further luster to the so-called jihadi narrative.
Other forces have also been at work. Successive governments failed to deliver the goods to the people. Massive corruption in high places — part fact, part fiction — a creaky, old legal system, economic mismanagement, dearth of employment opportunities, all combined to make the people disillusioned with the “moth-eaten, corrupt, rotten to the core” system. The young educated generation being more sensitive and having greater expectations than the rest has borne the brunt of the disillusionment. The growth of the internet, particularly social media, has provided a powerful platform to express the disillusionment and connect with extremist organizations. The extremists have been remarkably adroit in the use of the internet. Social media have certain advantages over the mainstream media. They are easy to use and cost little. One can reach an immense audience as well as engage with the target groups or individuals.
Regrettably, the academic institutions have failed to equip their students with the intellectual strength to counteract this narrative. This is for the reason that critical thinking is by and large short shrifted in these institutions — from schools to universities. The students of higher education institutions are more likely to be swept off their feet by the toxic narrative. Unlike junior students, they are not under the watchful eyes of their parents. They have an unrestricted access to the social media. Then there is a sense of power that comes with age. The greater the sense of power, the more irresistible is the urge to upset the applecart of the social order.
Radicalization cuts across social classes. The radicalized may not even be religious to begin with. However, they do have some grievances against the system and need an outlet to give vent to the same. The root and branch remedy offered by radical organizations are a Greek gift for the youth: fatal but fascinating.
It follows that the radicalization of the Pakistani society cannot be set down to a single cause, rather it is a function of multiple factors acting in tandem. Therefore, de-radicalization requires a holistic approach taking into account all the factors which have contributed to the growth of extremism. Besides, since campuses are part of society, focusing only on them to the exclusion of other institutions will not be of much avail.
To begin with, the state must continue to demonstrate its unequivocal commitment to fighting the militancy. Until the onset of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014, such commitment was manifestly lacking. Taking the militants head-on has been of vital significance. It has sent out the message both within and outside the country that the state would not tolerate extremism in any shape or form. Thanks to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Radd-ul-Fasaad and ancillary military operations, peace has returned to the tribal areas, which once had the dubious reputation of being an epicenter of global terrorism.
The state’s commitment to weed out militancy is important for combating radicalization for at least two reasons: In the first place, actions speak louder than words. When government institutions are seen to be going all out against militant outfits, the society’s inclination towards extremism and radicalization is held in check. In the second place, the decimation of terrorist networks, together with choking their funding, denudes the militant organizations of their capability to recruit people to their cause and subsequently provide them weapons and training.
Such networks, however, are not restricted to a particular region; they are spread in different parts of the country. Therefore, continuous action against such networks is required. The National Action Plan (NAP) also provides that militant outfits and gangs will not be allowed to operate in the country. Accordingly, the Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, launched earlier this year all over the country, aims at “indiscriminately eliminating the residual/latent threat of terrorism.
Since radicalization is the offspring of a diabolical ideology, counter narratives and discourses need to be publicized. Such narratives may, inter alia, (a) highlight the progressive interpretation of Islam and the high value that it attaches to the right to life of all human beings, Muslims as well as non-Muslims; dispel the notion of an inherent antagonism between Islam and other creeds; emphasize the importance of religious tolerance and moderation; state in so many words that jihad can only be declared by the government and that too in special circumstances; and exhort the young generation to put its trust in knowledge and learning rather than violence and extremism as the gateway to success and glory.
As part of propagating the counter narratives, not only the madaris or seminaries may be reformed but the curricula of mainstream academic institutions needs to be revised as well so that they become a powerful agency for inculcating tolerance and moderation among students. The media should avoid presenting the militants as heroes, promoting religious extremism in any form, or enthroning the militancy. Regulating the social media will be much more challenging, because of its peculiar characteristics. However, whatever can be done must be done. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 provides the government with a legal instrument to regulate the cyberspace. The Act outlaws the use of cyberspace to cause unrest, commotion, or public disorder. The activities covered include hate speech (inter-faith, sectarian or racial); glorification of terrorism; and recruitment, funding or planning for terrorism. The institutions responsible for implementing the Act, the PTA and FIA, need to shore up their online vigilance.
It is vital that critical thinking is promoted in academic institutions. Instead of being merely an instrument of earning degrees, education should also serve as an instrument of problem solving in a constructive way. Emphasis should be placed on fostering the spirit of enquiry and skepticism among students, so that they can think and decide for themselves rather than blindly subscribe to various narratives on and outside the campus. The system of rewards that is in vogue in academic institutions ought to place a high premium on the students’ ability to question the basic assumptions, which they take for granted as a matter of course. The students imbued with the habit of critical thinking are less likely to be swept off their feet by extremism than others.
While the government may keep a strong watch on the institutions of higher learning, a word of caution is in order. Increased campus security, frequent questioning of the youth, restricting their freedom of movement, and police presence may further alienate the youth. A better device will be to gather intelligence about teachers and students in a subtle way without raising their hackles.
Finally, increased employment opportunities and alleviating socio-economic deprivation are also important. The former will make the students optimistic of finding a job after their studies are over. The latter will shore up their trust in the present system. On both accounts, extremist tendencies will be dampened.
The writer regularly contributes in national print media.