October 26, 2015

Pakistan - Meet the Educated Middle Class Islamist militants: Hajrah Mumtaz explodes the myth about Islamists only being from poor backgrounds and from madressah's

Dawn, Oct 26, 2015

Educated militants
by Hajrah Mumtaz

SEVERAL years ago, an international newspaper compiled a list of the names of some 15 or 20 militants from different parts of the world, tried and convicted for involvement in various terror attacks. It gave merely their names, the atrocity they helped perpetrate, and their field of study and educational qualifications.

The list was varied in terms of the institutions, from the prestigious to the unknown, and the levels of qualifications were different, but in the disciplines it was startlingly uniform. The majority had engineering and other similar science backgrounds (though not pure or theoretical science or mathematics). A couple had nursing degrees, and there were a few business/MBA/economics degrees listed. There was no name associated with a liberal arts or social science background.

This seems to make sense. The fields of study/work listed above can be described as amongst those where questions tend to have black and white answers, training minds thus in thinking in similarly compartmentalised terms. Things are either right or wrong; by extension, minds not trained to think very creatively or flexibly would be more susceptible to similar rigidity in ideology and outlook.

Extremism does not emerge from the madressah alone.

It is difficult to imagine, though, someone who has studied history, or philosophy, or literature becoming so solidly convinced of some other grouping’s ‘wrongness’ that violence as an institutionalised ideology becomes utterly and irrevocably justified (terrorism as opposed to criminality).

It can be argued these fields, and the advanced study of the sciences, say pure maths or quantum physics, teach minds creativity and flexibility. There are no hard and fast rules here, no black and white answers, with most questions existing in a web of greyness where the possibilities are as endless as the theoretician’s ability to think through them. Wrong can be proved to have become right, and vice versa, with experimentation and rational debate being the cornerstones.

I’m thinking of that list now because in Pakistan, a long-held and cherished myth about militancy and terrorism seems finally being exposed: that these issues are a ‘madressah problem’, that people become susceptible to these forms of violence because of indoctrination, low literacy, a lack of educational and employment opportunities, and a resultant grudge.

This is true. But it is not a madressah problem alone. In recent months, a couple of high-profile arrests have shown that those with access to top-end education and employment aren’t immune to the danger either.

Earlier this month, a faculty member of Szabist, a private research university, was arrested for alleged anti-state activities and links with the Hizbut Tahrir, which is banned in Pakistan. He taught probability and statistical inference. He himself is an engineer who studied at NED University, and also has an MBA from the Institute of Business Administration.

Earlier during the year, the police arrested Saad Aziz who, it is claimed, pulled the trigger on Sabeen Mahmud. It is claimed that he was involved in the Safoora Goth carnage too. According to an interview he gave to the Herald, Sabeen’s murder was planned by him in conjunction with four other young men, all well-educated, like him.

Too much should not be read into the claims and revelations made by the police — its capacities of investigation and methods of interrogation are well known, after all. Nevertheless, there is cause for worry here. Rigid mindsets, dogmatic thinking and a black and white view of the world can be hallmarks of educated, employable sections of society, too.

There are many steps that need to be taken, and many of them are well known. Yet for educational institutions, one immediate remedy to open up students’ horizons can lie in putting academic breadth requirements in fields of study, particularly the technical and vocational ones.

This means that in order to earn his MBA degree, for example, the student is required to put in time on a specified number of courses from other disciplines, maybe history or literature or philosophy, that don’t have anything to do with his line of study but the university deems nevertheless useful. This is a common requirement in universities across the world.

Of course, this brings up the question of how disciplines are taught, in addition to their being taught at all. The study of history, for example, can be immensely mind-expanding; but only if the curriculum and teaching is itself creative and flexible. Sadly, in a country where history textbooks start with the statement that Pakistan was created with Muhammad bin Qasim’s conquest in 711AD of what are now parts of Sindh and Multan, and where what passes for academic debate in, say, medicine or physics involves the finer points of religion, a quick fix is doubtful.

Even so, the attempt has to be made if we are to turn away from the abyss. And what policymakers insist on ignoring is the fact that it does start with a creative, flexible and educated populace.

The writer is a member of staff.