March Issue 2015
Incubators for Radicalisation
Model United Nations (MUN) events have been organised by various Pakistani institutions for the last decade or so. A regular MUN event involves debating teams from different educational institutions, which are given different countries to represent in a format mimicking the United Nations Organisation. The event usually spans two or three days in which different sessions take place. An evolved form of parliamentary debating, these events facilitate curiosity about different countries, generate interactions among students and help instil an ethic of teamwork. Such events also spark students’ interest in foreign policy and diverse cultures from across the globe.
One such MUN was organised by the Faculty of Management Sciences at the International Islamic University, Islamabad (IIUI) between October 24 and 26, 2014. The purpose of the event, titled ‘WIMUN’ (Women International Model United Nations), was “to provide an interactive platform where female students can freely discuss global issues.” The event, that included an opening ceremony graced by the presence of foreign diplomats, went ahead without much fuss on the first day. The social event ‘Global Village’ was to take place on the second day of WIMUN and participants were asked to represent the culture of the countries assigned to them.
At most MUNs organised in Pakistan, teams are asked to represent Israel and Palestine due to the prominence of the Israel-Palestine conflict on the international affairs circuit. In the global village event, the team representing Israel prepared a stall with the Israeli flag and some members of the team donned traditional Israeli attire. The event was also attended by staff of different embassies based in Islamabad. On witnessing the Israel stall, the embassy staff of two Arab countries took offence and protested to the authorities. Faced with a precarious situation, the event administration allotted Bangladesh to the Israel team. This last-minute alteration was done to avert a mini-crisis.
But the re-allotment was not deemed enough by members of the right-wing student organisation Islami Jamiat Tulaba (IJT) and male students from the famously fascist organisation called for protests against the allotment of Israel at the event. As if this was not enough, a popular English daily published a provocative news report about the incident with the title, ‘Israeli cultural stall organised at Islamic University.’ The story — filed by an anonymous correspondent — started out all guns blazing. It opened thus, “Certain elements have become active in the federal capital to display Israeli culture and portray the country as a torchbearer of peace.” It went on to include gems such as “A wave of anger and grief prevailed in religious and political circles when pictures of the events came up” and that the stall had “hurt the feelings of Muslims in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”
Following the publication of this news report, a protest rally organised by IJT emerged on the streets of Islamabad, denouncing the state of Israel. Male delegates from other cities who had been invited by WIMUN organisers were instructed to flee the event to save their lives as the protestors marched towards the venue of the event. The issue refused to die down due to the anathema for Israel harboured by many Pakistanis because of the plight of Palestinians at Zionist hands. A committee was formed by the IIUI administration to probe the matter, resulting in the official suspension (and unofficial dismissal) of office-bearers at the Faculty of Management Sciences. Five lawmakers in the National Assembly moved a ‘calling-attention notice’ regarding the matter, responding to which the federal minister for Higher Education promised the formation of another committee. Apart from the suspensions, some female students involved in organising the event were also under scrutiny and currently live in fear of being restituted from the university.
Universities are generally supposed to be nurseries for society at large, equipping students with the necessary wherewithal to survive and excel in the world. They are touted as incubators for ideas that will change the world. These ideas are turned on their head in Pakistani universities, which serve as ‘incubators’ of a different kind.
The IIUI was established in Islamabad in 1980, funded generously by Saudi Arabia. The Palestinian cleric — and founder of Al-Qaeda — Abdullah Azzam joined the University in November 1981 as a teacher. In more recent times, the mastermind of the attack on Parade Lane (December 2009) was also a student at the university. Patterns of latent radicalisation other than these famous examples abound. The Provost of the IIUI reportedly advised Baloch students to avoid seeking admission at the institute, while the Dean of the Basic and Applied Sciences department introduced a gender segregation policy that restricts male teachers from entering the women’s faculty premises. The chairman of the university’s Media and Communication Studies department told media personnel that efforts to “politicise” Malala Yousafzai are wrong, because she “represents a dirty picture of our society.” In January 2015, a seminar was organised at the ‘Daawa for Women’ centre to discuss the effects of black magic and how to treat its effects using religious scriptures.
Religious seminaries have usually been pointed out as a source of radicalisation in our society by researchers and lawmakers. While the deleterious effects of such seminaries cannot be dismissed, supposedly modern and elite universities also act as breeding grounds for religious fundamentalists and Islamists.
Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, in her seminal study on radicalism in elite Pakistani universities, concluded that “better educational facilities and access to ‘other’ worlds does not necessarily bridge the civilisational gap. The political ideology of the youth from affluent social backgrounds, hence, is not markedly different from the poor youth. While the possibility of these youth and women studying in top class universities physically joining jihad and waging war may be less, their underlying thinking is not very different.”
The study, titled ‘Red Hot Chilli Peppers Islam,’ touched upon retrogressive ideas prevailing in supposedly elite universities. Radicalism, especially in terms of the popular perspective of the outside world or the ‘other’ world, is part of the social pop culture reflected in the political views of youth from all socio-economic categories. Young people have a tendency to embrace radicalism or ideas which are tantamount to radicalism not necessarily because they understand the underlying ideology or comprehend the religious principles, but because such ideas have become popular in society and are not challenged by an alternative discourse.
The education sector has been neglected in Pakistan since the country’s inception. Induction of educators based on political patronage networks started during the reign of Zulfikar Bhutto (1972-77). Following in his footsteps, teachers with religious inclinations were recruited during the era of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988). The rot truly set in afterwards, and Pakistan’s education system is now in a perpetual state of decay. The establishment of private institutes hasn’t helped much in this regard. In fact, supposedly secular schools, colleges and universities are being operated by religious groups. Add a historical propaganda-laden curricula and ill-trained educators and we have all the ingredients to mass-produce confused minds.
In such circumstances, events like the WIMUN incident are bound to take place. There is little hope that any worthwhile lesson will be gleaned from the incident by the administration of the IIUI or any other university for that matter. Freedom of expression and an exchange of ideas seem like distant ideals for students of our country. Until the state rejects its revisionist ideology regarding religion and history, our universities and students are bound to suffer.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. He writes on History, Political Economy and Literature. Follow him on Twitter