Pakistan’s Emerging Threat: Highly Educated Youth Gravitate to Radicalization

Pakistan’s Emerging Threat: Highly Educated Youth Gravitate to Radicalization

Madeeha Anwar

Voice of America

The on-campus mob slaying of a journalism student and the arrest of a female medical student for allegedly planning a suicide attack underscore concerns that some of Pakistan’s highly educated youth are gravitating toward violent extremism and radicalization.

Security experts say the unrelated incidents show that religious militancy isn’t limited to the disenfranchised and uneducated poor. They contend the government has to wake up to a problem that may be getting worse as the country’s conservative streak growing deeper.

On April 13, a crowd in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa almost casually carried wooden planks and guns to fatally beat and shoot Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old journalism student who had been accused — falsely, as investigation later showed — of spreading blasphemy on social media.

Then Naureen Laghari, a bright, 20-year-old medical student from a well-educated family in Sindh province, was arrested for allegedly planning an Easter suicide attack on Lahore’s Christian community. She had pledged allegiance to Islamic State and had traveled to Syria, where she took military training.

“Laghari is not the first example of radicalized youth to become a foot soldier for a terror outfit,” security and defense analyst Aisha Siddiqa told VOA. “She’s certainly not the last one. When there’s no place in the country where you can engage in an open debate on religion, then the only way forward is in the form of radicalization.”

Confused Youth, An Easy Target

Youth dominates Pakistan’s population of 200 million people, so its most important demographic group is also the most impressionable. A recent report in the Dawn newspaper indicates that education doesn’t prevent militancy: Sindh’s Counter Terrorism Department said that out of 500 militants currently held in Sindh’s jails, 64 hold a master’s degree and 70 have a bachelor’s.

Analysts believe deprived and confused youth, particularly those who can’t find answers to their problems, are most vulnerable to fall into the hands of extremist groups, such as IS, which is highly tech-savvy and relies heavily on cyberspace to provide hardline narratives that glorify terrorism.

Other factors include political disillusionment, increasing militancy in the country, and poor security measures.

“I think they’re [youth] being attracted to extremism because there is so much religious ambiguity and no one to talk to,” Ayesha Ghaffar, a media sciences university student in Karachi told VOA. “I have a lot of questions but there's no one to answer them.”

Most of the current university students grew up in the ‘80s, when young men were openly recruited from universities for jihad as Pakistan and the U.S. joined to fight the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, then in Indian-controlled Kashmir in the ‘90s.

Experts believe the result was radicalization in youth on a national level, leaving them malleable as new causes emerged. That is bolstered by well-organized religious groups at most universities whose mission is to spread Islam among fellow students through prayer meetings, charities and other activities.

Deradicalization & Counter-Narrative

“Now is the time to make changes to the blunders we’ve made in the past, or we’ll pay the price forever,” Khadim Hussain, a security analyst, told VOA.

Education experts say it’s important to build a counter-narrative and cultivate an environment where youth can openly engage in conversations on issues considered taboo in Pakistan.

They believe outdated teaching methods, lack of development of new skills, and absence of sports and extracurricular activities lead to frustration allow youth to gravitate toward violent terrorism.

“The education system of Pakistan does not train a student in logical/scientific inference or critical thinking. So he’s unable to critically dissect the indoctrinating patterns,” Naureen Zehra, an education expert, told VOA.

Mughees ud Din Shaikh, dean of the Mass Communication department at the Superior University Lahore, added, “Social change takes decades. We need to change the curriculum and come up with a counter-narrative on an emergency basis. Everyone has to play a role towards deradicalization: teachers, religious scholars, mosques, state, security forces – everyone.”

Many see an urgent need to bring fast-spreading religious seminaries (madrasas) into the national education system. Once focused on the lower middle class, they have become prevalent in posh neighborhoods, too.

“As far as education is concerned, forget about universities and colleges, look at the religious schools in very elite neighborhoods in whole of Pakistan,” said Aisha Siddiqa.

Government’s Challenges

Security experts say the government has been avoiding tough decisions.

“Organizations like IS are active on cyberspace and have sleeper cells, but the government doesn’t pay attention because they fear for their perception in the world,” Khadim Hussain said. “This fear has impacted the society and state badly.”

Abdul Qayyum, a lawmaker and prominent member of the ruling PML-N party, denied that, telling VOA that government is aware of the gravity of the matter and is taking measures to prevent radicalization.

“The government is keeping an eye on curriculum, schools, universities and religious seminaries, as well. Through continuous and vigilant monitoring, we were able to catch terrorists like Naureen Laghari before they could carry out any atrocity.”

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Comments

Radicalization in Pakistan is hardly new, nor limited to the poor or the better off.

One suspects that the figures cited on the 'highly educated youth' being in custody is actually not new, rather it is a mix of PR "spin" and someone actually releasing the information. (Leaving aside whether any of those in jail have actually been convicted).

What makes Pakistan so distinctive - as reflected in many posts on the Forum for years - is the alleged and proven role of the Pakistani state in enabling, encouraging and even funding such radicalization. Add in the murky role of the military / ISI in having some control over such "radical" groups; even if that control is not 100%.

So the reporter considers the Pakistani state will promote an educational campaign against radicalization, no doubt with ample external funding. Leaving side most teachers do not reach in schools; although universities maybe different.

Radicalization will remain a Pakistani problem until it REALLY decides to counter it. It will not be listening to VOA or its international friends, unless they promise funds!

From the main section in our paper above entitled,"Confused Youth, An Easy Target:"

BEGIN QUOTE

Most of the current university students grew up in the ‘80s, when young men were openly recruited from universities for jihad as Pakistan and the U.S. joined to fight the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, then in Indian-controlled Kashmir in the ‘90s.

Experts believe the result was radicalization in youth on a national level, leaving them malleable as new causes emerged. That is bolstered by well-organized religious groups at most universities whose mission is to spread Islam among fellow students through prayer meetings, charities and other activities.

END QUOTE

Thought:

Given the context noted in the first quoted paragraph above (in the Old Cold War, educated Pakistani youth rose to the challenge of foreign invaders in their region), can we question the contention found in the second quoted paragraph above (to wit: that, most recently, a "new cause" has emerged -- one which gives rise to educated Pakistani youth's current "radicalization")?

Herein I am suggesting, of course, that the rise of educated Pakistani youth -- in both the earlier Soviet/communist invasion case and in the current U.S./Western invasion case also -- these must not be seen as being "separate causes."

In stark contrast, in both of these such instances, the rise of Pakistani youth would seem to relate to a "common cause," to wit: that of attempting to (a) throw out foreign invaders who were/are (b) actively and aggressively seeking to alter the way of life, the way of governance and the values, attitudes and beliefs of the populations of these regions; this, more along alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines.

Note that in the Soviet/the communist such invasion case, these such educated Pakistani (et al.) youth were not seen by the U.S./the West as being "confused youth" or "radicals"/"extremists."

Rather, back then, they were simply seen as being (a) properly and intelligently-focused (b) "patriots."

Yes?

Once again, the Three Cups of Tea narrative as an approach to counter radicalization has been called into question. Of course I champion improving the lives of women in societies where they have been marginalized for decades, if not centuries, but that shouldn't be confused as a counter radicalization effort.

More education alone isn't the answer, not when we have a medical student willing to become a suicide bomber, or let's not forget the medical doctor who conducted a suicide attack on a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan, or a score of other doctors, engineers, etc. who came from upper middle class families and clearly had a good education who became terrorists. Wouldn't it be nice if the answer was simply jobs and more schools? How much money we could save, and how much more productive the world would be, but the myth we created has been disproven repeatedly. It is time to start questioning our assumptions and base recommendations based on hard data instead of outdated opinions tied to education, jobs, and legitimacy.

Ideology is driving the train, the experts who deal with the Islamists in the CIA and FBI repeatedly validate this. Yet, the Cold War counter insurgent narrative about governance and jobs still dominates the discussion because many of our strategic thinkers cannot break away from the Cold War paradigm, where the conflict on the ideological front was largely over economic and governance systems. Today it is different.

What I found odd in the article was the comment that education experts in Pakistan say their teaching methods are outdated, and they don't teach a student to think logically or scientifically. At least two factors cause me to question this assertion. First, medical doctors and engineers are taught to think scientifically and logically. Second, a lot of Pakistan students in higher education go overseas for their schooling. They still participate in terrorist organizations.

As one Pakistani told me a few years back, and I think he hit the nail on the head, is there is insufficient religious education. His point, was that students from middle class families, often searching for identify, came from non-practicing Muslim families, so they didn't have a good understanding of Islam and were vulnerable to extremist interpretations.

I agree the ability to think critically, and cultivating a desire to seek facts, is ultimately a worthwhile effort; however, I have not hope that the U.S. education system can provide this type of mentoring based on their recent performance. We are producing some of the dumbest university graduates in the world, with the exception of our hard science graduates and those who attend Ivy League schools. The crisis is not limited to Pakistan. We are likely to see the re-emergence of left wing terrorism in the U.S. from students who are easily manipulated by left leaning faculty.