Why Varsity Students Are Vulnerable to Extremism and How To Change It

Saad AzizSaad Aziz is an unlikely poster boy for terrorism. The son of a good family, educated at some of the nation’s top schools, Aziz appeared to be everything that any parent would want for their child. Inside, though, a terrible storm was building. How did this promising young man turn into a monster? This is a question that must be dealt with because, as is finally coming to light, Aziz is not the only well-educated jihadi in our midst. We look for answers to this question not out of mere curiosity, but in hopes of finding a cure for the disease. Thankfully, it might be easier than we think.

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Should we ban anti-Pakistan ideas? Or debate them?


When I was a boy, I was would hide outside the door and listen when chacha would visit and he and my father would spend hours discussing and debating politics late into the night. Chacha was a diehard Jamaati, and my father was an unapologetic socialist. It was always interesting to me to listen as the paths of their opinions and beliefs would easily come together and then just as easily part ways. It was like a dance of ideas taking place to the tune of life and society. One afternoon, I tried to impress my father by telling him about something I had heard Qazi Hussain Ahmad say and how it was obviously nonsense. To my surprise, my father took a stern look in his eye and asked me to explain myself. I repeated again what I had said before. For the next half hour my father grilled me with questions, all defending the Jamaati Amir’s position. I felt confused and on the point of tears when my father finally dismissed me.

Later that night, he called me in where he and my uncle were talking. “Beta,” he said, “have you thought any more about our discussion earlier?” I looked down at my feet and told him that I didn’t know what to think, that I thought he would have agreed with me. I could feel the men looking at me and I was burning with embarrassment. My father put his hand on my shoulder and said, “What I think is not the point. You put forth an opinion that wasn’t really yours. Even if you think you believe it, it will always belong to someone else until you understand not only why you believe it, but why someone else might not. Only then will you have fully embraced the idea, and only then it will be yours.” My uncle smiled and said, “Your father and I enjoy these talks so much not because we have any hope of converting the other. I gave up on talking any sense into him years ago.” My father laughed. “The point is we loved these debates because it is through debate that we understand each other’s point of view, and it makes us think more about what we believe and why.”

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Killing bin Laden won’t fix our problems

StudentsA lot of my friends are saying that now that bin Laden is dead, the US should pack up and go home. They have no reason to stay. Maybe, maybe not. But honestly I am less concerned about being killed in a drone attack than being killed by militants. The fact that bin Laden was found living outside Kakul for several years shows that the roots of our troubles are not in America, they’re planted firmly in our own soil, and only we can pull them out.

Nabiha Meher got to the core of the problem in her blog post for Dawn last Friday, and we would do well to read this carefully.

Very few across Pakistan, elite or not, teach critical thinking which is absolutely essential and should be compulsory from an early age. Without the ability to think, education starts to resemble indoctrination. And in a country like ours, where schools have no option but to teach state-sanctioned propaganda under the guise of Pakistan Studies and Islamiyat, which aims to indoctrinate with a linear vision, this becomes even more necessary. One is not allowed to challenge the syllabus and is expected to regurgitate a single perspective – the chosen perspective. If you don’t, you fail and that is not an option most are willing to take. This sends a clear message: difference and diversity will not be tolerated.

We need to stop, pause and think about our current situation. Isn’t this just a logical outcome of these students having been taught NOT to challenge alternative perspectives, and blindly believe what their teachers and texts tell them? Indeed there are many who fail critical thinking courses because they stubbornly decided that what we, the liberal teachers, are doing is part of the grand Hindu-Zionist-CIA conspiracy just because we are presenting them with alternative perspectives and asking them to be sensitive to other views. They are, after all, a product of the society they live in and most do not have a living memory of the world before September 11.

The reactions to the news of Osama’s death are a case in point. How many people I have seen declare that it must be a fake. How many people declare that Osama bin Laden could not have been in Pakistan. People tell me this and when I ask what proof they have for any of these claims, they just stare at me. Because they have no proof. All they have is a very narrow perspective that they are unable to see outside of. If events don’t fit within the scope of this narrow perspective, they are willing to believe the craziest things to protect their world view.

Americans aren’t responsible for the death of Farooq Baig. Americans had nothing to do with the torture and brutal death of Nadir Rasheed Hashmi. It was Pakistanis, not Americans, who walked into Bahawalpur church and gunned down 18 innocent Pakistanis. Neither were there any drones being launched from the Ashura procession in Quetta in 2004 when militants killed over 40 Pakistani Muslims. Americans did not hold a gun to the head of Talat Hussain and tell him to write a stupid attack against Angelina Jolie, and they did not waterboard Meher Bokhari and tell her to respond to the murder of Salmaan Taseer Shaheed by asking if his murderer is a “hero”.

These are all examples of the outdated and poisonous mindset that was here before the Americans and will be here after they leave. Pretend all you want that turning our backs on America, China will gladly give us what we ask for with no conditionalities, but do not forget the Chinese response to the Kargil fiasco which was to send Mian Nawaz packing empty handed. If you think the Americans are anti-Islam because one lunatic defied his government and desecrated a Koran, don’t forget it was China, not America, who carried out a deadly crackdown on Muslims in their country.

The only way that we’re going to change the direction of the country is through improving education. For all the talk about HEC – which is an important debate – there is too little action being taken to change the way that our children are being taught to think from the earliest age. If our children grow up without learning how to think for themselves, any improvement in higher education is too litte, too late.

Education should aid evolution, but our students are going downhill. This is our reality but I will maintain that we are also to blame. By putting up with this and allowing students to intimidate as well as regulate others, we are guilty of perpetuating an intolerant culture. We should not be tolerant of the intolerant. By putting profit above quality and by not teaching critical thinking from an early age, we are a part of the problem. What we are breeding is an even more dangerous form of terrorist than the ignorant, brainwashed madrassa students who do not know any better. They were never taught to think unlike those who choose not to and continue to believe in conspiracies, which are trendy and perpetuated by celebrities like Ali Azmat. It is shocking when it comes from a well-dressed, articulate student in a suit attending the top business school in the country; one whose aim in life is to then move abroad, work for a multi-national that he is currently dismissing as an evil Zionist company. I wonder how many future Faisal Shahzads and Dr Aafias are out there. They were the result of an earlier, more tolerant generation. Now, we are witnessing the children of Zia in their full glory and splendour. Something has to be done and something has to be done now.

Bin Laden was responsible for killing countless innocent Muslims across the world. How many Muslims died in 9/11 attacks? How many died from al Qaeda’s stated strategy to divide the Ummah by carrying out sectarian attacks and inflaming violence? But his death is only symbolic. If we are going to escape the cycle of death and destruction, we are going to have to change the way that we are educating our youth from one that reinforces narrow minded intolerance and suspicion to one that encourages critical thinking, analysis, and open mindedness. Only then will we be able to end this war of terror.

Take Up The Challenge

I was talking to my friend M. recently about the strategic dialogues and after he went on for some time about a particular point, I had a feeling of déjà vu. I couldn’t shake that feeling which stayed with me for the rest of the day. It was only after I had eaten my evening meal and was sitting in front of the television being a couch potato that I broke the spell. It wasn’t déjà vu – actually I had heard this same point before in almost the same words from a TV show!

That’s why I really liked Mashhood Rizvi’s first part of his Challenging the Mass Media series in Express Tribune. What really struck me was that in a way he is actually telling something that is so obvious it is easy to overlook. As “passive consumers” we are not reading, listening, and watching media and thinking critically about it. Rather we are just taking in words, phrases, and ideas and then repeating them later.

I will admit that I am just as guilty. There are commentators that I like and respect and I follow their opinions pretty regularly. Sometimes I find myself saying something that I think is very brilliant, when in the back of my mind I realize that I am repeating someone else’s idea only! Certainly that’s natural to some extent – we all learn from each other and build on each other’s ideas. But we should at least be thinking about what we’re saying, not just repeating like an echo.

Here’s what Mashhood Rizvi says:

Challenging media and education means renouncing our roles as passive consumers. It means breaking free of the limits placed upon our actions and interactions and instead thinking about opportunities for unlearning, co-learning, and self-learning. Today, many people are questioning the media and education, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly — how can more of this happen? Perhaps by each of us first asking ourselves certain critical questions such as: How can I live and interact in ways that challenge exploitation and indoctrination?; How can I break the monopoly that education/media has?; How can I encourage people to reclaim learning as inherent to themselves, not as something given to them by experts?; How can I engage in and promote local, diverse self-expressions?; How can I ask more questions and encourage others around me to ask questions?

The ancient philosopher Socrates used to learn and teach by asking questions only. It’s an interesting exercise to try the next time someone is talking on and on – keep asking them why they think this and where is their evidence to support their ideas. But most importantly, challenge yourself to the same questions. The worst thing that can happen is we all might learn something!