Pakistani Universities; the Hotbed of Religous Extremism

Extremism in Universities

A group of students in Punjab University attacked a couple for having lunch together. The incident allegedly took place inside a cafeteria. The wife who is also a student at the university shouted and screamed as the mob assaulted her husband.

As per local media, it was an Islamist group that opposed interactions between students of the opposite sex. Bystanders taped the assault but did not intervene. Very rarely does anyone try to stop an Islamist mob for fear of being labeled as the accused’s aide.

For years now, Islamist mobs in Pakistan have tried to impose their version of Islam within university premises with impunity. In a few cases when the state did act, popular support stayed with the attackers and not the attacked.

Just last year, Mashal Khan, a university student in the city of Mardan was killed over false claims of blasphemy. A fellow student had accused Mashal Khan of posting blasphemous content online.

Without the slightest inclination toward uncovering the facts, a mob of students rushed to his dorm. He locked himself inside the bathroom but the mob stormed in and dragged him out in the yard where he was shot and beaten to death.

At the time, the state government did intervene. But to add insult to injury, rather than put the killers on trial right away, an investigative committee was set up to find out whether Mashal Khan had actually posted blasphemous content. This committee served no legal purpose. Pakistani law is clear on murder; it does not specify special treatment for zealots.

At the time, Imran Khan, the current PM of Pakistan, had the state government. He vowed to name the university after Mashal Khan but never followed through.

The only accused to receive the death penalty had already fled the country. Judges passed small sentences to around a couple dozen other students and released the majority of the accused.

Those released by the courts were celebrated by large crowds of Islamists who greeted them as heroes even though the investigative committee had found no proof of blasphemy.

The courts did not see that as a condonation of terrorism.

Both these incidents took place inside universities. What should be institutions of progress in Pakistan are occupied by the most ardent of zealots. Unlike the civilized world where university students are at the forefront of progressive movements, Pakistani universities are the hotbed of religious extremism.

This alludes to a point Samuel Huntington of Harvard made first in his infamous Foreign Affairs article and then in his book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order.

To form his thesis in his book, he used the demographic data that showed that youth would soon make up the majority of the Muslim world. As sociological evidence shows; youth is more prone to revolt.

He didn’t mind that at all. The only concern that he did show about this particular point was that the demographics were changing at the wrong time in history. He cited the global resurgence of religion starting in the 1970s and argued that a young population and renewed religious divisions were a bad mix. The character of any social change would be religious.

In the 1970s, to rile up religious opposition to the Soviets, CIA backed and funded changes to the education system in Afghanistan. CIA funded Haqqanis to print and distribute schoolbooks that glorified militant Islam.

A few years later, a military dictator took over Pakistan. He was also close to the United States and made similar changes to the schools in Pakistan. Since then, school texts in Pakistan haven’t changed much.

Today, Pakistan has one of the youngest population anywhere in the world. A theological education system, youth, and the global resurgence of religion mean Pakistani millennials are more religious than their parents.

In part, it helps explain why there is a culture of intolerance in Pakistani universities.

A poor culture of media coverage is also a contributing factor. Pakistani media conform rather than challenge, which is the polar opposite of the role media ought to play in any society.

They mistake their subservience for patriotism and prefer the momentary calm even if it hurts the country in the long run.

The Mashal Khan case has now vanished from the coverage altogether. Despite promises by the state to bring the killers to justice, prime suspects still roam free.

PM Imran Khan’s education policy that could worsen the crisis in Pakistani universities has not been a subject of policy debates. The vow to ‘fix’ the education suffices for the media just as it would for an entire industry engaged in yellow journalism that focused on rhetoric and revenue rather than policy and debate.

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