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.

Recent reports note that when judging recruits, terrorists have a particular type of student in their sights:

Interviews with university teachers and students suggest that terrorist groups have been working in many public and private universities and mainly focusing on recruiting students studying computer sciences, applied physics and applied chemistry.

“The knowledge learned in certain courses of these subjects can come in handy in carrying out terrorist activities,” said a teacher at the University of Karachi.

While these subjects may provide knowledge helpful to terrorist activities such as bomb making or hacking, there is another reason why students of the sciences may be targeted.

Science teaches certainties that have the equivalent of a moral upper hand through being absolutely and invariably correct. In this way, we have in people the inclination to either totally accept as right, or totally reject as wrong, ideas and attitudes. And so, quite possibly, we have a society that is one step closer to allowing extreme viewpoints or ideologies to take root.

Students of the social sciences and humanities, by contrast, are taught to navigate their way through endless possibilities with no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to light the path. Philosophy, history, literature, anthropology, etc are all areas that require the student to traverse the grey areas and the ‘what ifs’, where the only moral upper hand can be logic and rational, coherent debate. These subjects ask the student to take in context and connections and search for alternatives.

The link between engineers and an intolerant, unrealistic mindset is actually well documented.

According to personality experts, engineers are more likely than humanities students to view society like a big machine. And when that machine breaks down, engineers often tend to think it can be fixed by eliminating the so-called bad parts and replacing them with good ones. This clear distinction between right and wrong, good and bad, broken and fixed, appeals to scientific minds, which are more likely to be troubled by the idea that life might have messy moral gray -areas. It’s a mindset of “either the equation works or it doesn’t,” says Mitchell Silber, head of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department. Silber says this mentality helps explain why engineers are more likely to make literal interpretations of Islamic holy writings that appear to call for violence or jihad.

So what is the solution? First we must recognise that sciences are not the problem. The problem an education that emphasises science without the tempering subjects of humanities. It is these subjects – literature, poetry, drama, arts, history – that critical thinking is practiced and perfected, and it is critical thinking that is the ultimate cure for extremism. Don’t take my word for it either, it is openly acknowledged by the extremists themselves. It is why they try to kill those who promote critical thinking: Malala, Salmaan Taseer, Raza Rumi, Sabeen.

We don’t have to agree with anyone, but we have to learn to disagree. We also have to learn to weigh different opinions, different beliefs, and form our own not based on trying to find the perfect formula, but through an understanding that the world is not black and white but filled with colours of all hues. We must learn to recognise that a rose is a rose whether it is red or pink or white, and that a hyacinth is just as much a flower as a rose, and each is beautiful in its own way.

Sciences are crucial to the advancement of our nation. It is through science that we will cure polio and other diseases. It is through science that we will solve the energy crisis and water crisis. It is through science that we will improve nutrition and reduce poverty. But while science is crucial to advancement, humanities are crucial to our survival. It is the humanities that teaches us how to live together.



Author: Mahmood Adeel