Terrorism and tertiary education

by Ismail Khan

According to a news story published by the Washington Post, the US administration is considering providing the largest educational assistance ever given to Pakistan. Amounting to a total of $ 200 million, this assistance is supposed to reform the schooling system of Pakistan.

The Washington Post story leaves little to the imagination that in the primary education of Pakistan, the basic schooling infrastructure will be targeted. In fact, the story starts by saying that “with a curriculum that glorifies violence in the name of Islam and ignores basic history, science and math”, the education system breeds modern-day terrorism. While that cannot be contested, what has been observed is that students of advanced science and math have caused equal pain to the US.

It would be a surprise for many to learn that many high-profile terrorists, not least whose agenda is trans-national, find their education in applied sciences and that too, in engineering. Here are some examples: eight out of the 25 people involved in 9/11 were engineers; of these, the leading ones included Muhammad Atta with a degree in architectural engineering and Khaled Sheikh Muhammad with a degree in mechanical engineering. Earlier, Ramzi Yusuf, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Centre attacks, was an electrical engineer. In 2006, an ex-student of Georgia Tech. was convicted for a terror plot in Canada. In one recent case, a student of mechanical engineering, Umer Farouk Abdul-Mutallab, was caught before blowing up an airplane en route to Detroit. The most recent conviction of Aafia Siddiqi is another reminder; she was trained in neuroscience from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT.)

A recent attempt to learn about the connection has come this summer from two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, at the University of Oxford (http://www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/users/gambetta/Engineers%20of%20Jihad.pdf). Looking into a sample of the profile of key terrorist plots around the world, the research comes up with 56.7 percent representation of engineers followed by Islamic studies, though in much distance; when all the ‘elite degrees’ namely engineering, medicine, and science were combined, the representation jumps to 63.4 percent.

It is not the technological demand that recruits engineers; instead the inquisitive yet unchallenging attitude of the recruiters, which makes them the recruits. Thus, the issue has less to do with the presence of madrassas or even engineering; the real issue is the absence of critical thinking in the courses being taught.

Together with medicine and management, engineering is one of the most coveted fields in developing countries for its ‘productivity’ in earning a high wage after graduation. Entrance to such schools is the competitive advantage; those who pass are appreciated while those who flunk are treated as outcasts, leading to their loss of self-confidence.

Despite the competition, it would not be wrong to argue that the way these courses are often designed may not necessarily inspire critical input during the time of education. If you are able to solve a question on integrals, even through ‘reverse’ solutions, you may get full marks. Unlike social sciences, where there may be room and incentive for intellectual freedom, there can be less in applied sciences, especially at junior levels, and students may remain inside models — or at least expected to remain confined to the models.

At the same time, given the fact that the human is a political animal, many students seeing the problem through 0s and 1s may fall prey to ‘social and political beasts’ — much like a student of a madrassa views the world: ‘us versus them’. This is what is noted among the burgeoning youngsters online. Least concerned with words and their ambiguities, they may want actions.

Surely, living rigidly with the compartmentalisation of knowledge comes with a cost. Here, it must be reminded that, even while the US’s finest schools included the ones with a focus on liberal arts only, today, many students in a down-turn economy believe that there is no practical importance of this. Still, within the US, while there is compulsion for students to take courses from multiple disciplines, there is comparatively less room in countries like Pakistan. In Pakistan, the humanities courses that the HEC has mandated with technical degrees at junior levels include Pakistan Studies and Islamic Studies — forget the content, these courses are hardly of any importance for students looking for a job.

The Muslim world has an added reason to ignore critical reasoning within the schools. For their challenging approach to the status quo, many students with critical approach have debated the legitimacy of kings and military rulers at home and demanded rights for the self. Not surprisingly, military regimes in Pakistan did not find space for academia in the social sciences or student unions in general. In Pakistan, during Musharraf’s time, much to the chagrin of top educationists, higher education was equated with science and technology only; which, still for many, was more technology and less science. Yet those who questioned his actions were found in the social science department of LUMS and among the students of Balochistan University. This questioning hardly goes with the status quo and such students, therein, end up as ‘unproductive’.

Again, it is not to underestimate any subject per se, but rather highlight the absence of critical thinking, which empowers a student to understand the self. Students of applied disciplines with a critical focus can challenge boxed thinking with precision and act as a bridge by explaining the whole picture.

Today, not only to combat terrorism, but also to achieve the growth of state institutes, these countries must look into higher education. In fact, given the low net enrolment at the tertiary level, intervention at such a level would be productive — not least for the US where students of such backgrounds go for further education. However, just like it is politically incorrect to associate terrorism with inherited identity, be it on the basis of religion or ethnicity, it is not correct to associate any acquired identity, such as academic background, with specific behaviour. Instead, reasons and gaps in our knowledge on terrorism need to be looked into.