VIEW: Radicalisation of educated Pakistani youth —Ishtiaq Ahmed - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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A purely religious radicalisation may mean nothing more than the believers of a religion beginning to observe their religious duties strictly in accordance with some core ideas. However, if radicalisation entails politicisation of a religion, it becomes part of a power contest and evolves as an ideology

For researchers interested in keeping track of the trends and patterns pertaining to radicalisation, Talibanisation and the concomitant problems of violence and terrorism in Pakistan, the reports published by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Islamabad, are invaluable source material. The September 2010 issue of its quarterly journal, Conflict and Peace Studies, includes among other items a sophisticated survey of the perceptions of educated youth towards radicalisation.

Pakistan had 113 mainstream universities and 1,371 degree colleges in the country in 2007, where 424,271 and 324,988 students were enrolled, respectively. The research design based on an extensive field study uses a questionnaire to elicit the views of educated youth from both rural and urban backgrounds on radicalisation. The investigation is limited to students of postgraduate colleges and universities. Using sophisticated sampling techniques, the views of students from 16 public and private universities and postgraduate public colleges across the country were solicited.

The findings are most interesting and illuminating. The respondents overwhelmingly considered religion an important factor in their life (92.4 percent), though 51.7 percent said that they do not offer prayers regularly. More than half (55.8 percent) insisted that religious values were critical to Pakistan’s progress. While 51.3 percent endorsed the country’s hybrid legal system in which shariah is one, but not the only, source of law, 28.2 percent were of the view that religion should be the only source of law in Pakistan. Some of the findings are confusing. For example, while a significant majority of the respondents from Punjab (76.5 percent) believed that religious values were critical for the country’s progress, a much smaller number of respondents from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (36 percent) and FATA (53.8 percent) agreed with them. Nonetheless, the view of 50 percent of the respondents from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 61.5 percent from FATA was that shariah must be the only source of law in the country.

With regard to whether religio-political parties should get a chance to rule the country, the respondents were divided equally: 42.6 percent endorsed the idea and 42 percent opposed it. A positive indication noted in the survey was that 77.8 percent of male respondents acknowledged that women had the same rights as men, while 95.9 percent stated that women should receive an education and 75.7 percent that they should have the opportunity to work. But most of the respondents (65.5 percent) also thought that women should veil outside their homes: males 71.3 percent and females 57.1 percent.

A majority (79.4 percent) of the respondents thought that the Pakistani Taliban did not serve the cause of Islam. Most of the respondents (85.6 percent) believed that suicide bombings were prohibited in Islam. The majority of the respondents (61.7 percent) supported military operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The survey does not offer a definition of radicalisation, taking for granted that its meaning is self-evident. That is somewhat unsatisfactory. The dictionary meaning of radical is simply “going back to the roots”. Radicalisation is, therefore, a process through which the movement towards the pristine takes place. A purely religious radicalisation may mean nothing more than the believers of a religion beginning to observe their religious duties strictly in accordance with some core ideas. However, if radicalisation entails politicisation of a religion, it becomes part of a power contest and evolves as an ideology. In such circumstances, it forfeits its claims to being purely a spiritual transformation concerned with metaphysical objectives. It becomes an ideology concerned with the distribution of scarce resources, power and status on earth and may even make tall claims to rewards in the hereafter. Such radicalisation calls for a rational critique of its consequences and outcomes.

The fact that 92.4 percent opined that religion was an important factor in their life is an interesting finding. Such personal radicalisation is unproblematic as long as it serves as a moral and ethical radar to make sense of life’s meaning and purpose. For liberals and democrats there should be no problem is respecting such radicalisation. However, as soon as radicalisation impinges on the rights of individuals and carries implications for the legal and political system, there is need to be more critical.

Perceptions are a product largely of a priori socialisation and indoctrination. There is no doubt that the phantom of General Ziaul Haq’s so-called Islamisation continues to haunt the lives of educated youth at the highest educational centres of Pakistan. Such Islamisation was contradictory and schizophrenic, and so are some of the views of Pakistan’s highly educated youth. That a majority believes that parallel systems of law should apply in Pakistan is an example of this. There is considerable scholarly material showing that legal systems are underpinned by distinct philosophical and moral and ethical values and to apply different systems is to apply conflicting moral and ethical values.

What is perhaps controversial is the PIPS report describing the findings on women as “a positive indication”! When we were at the university, students who believed that women should have equal rights were also convinced that they should work alongside men. To imagine someone veiled from head to foot working, sounded patently incongruent. That is not the case with the report under discussion. A majority of not only male students but even female students favour veiling. The report does not mention if it means that men and women should also work in segregated milieus, but I suppose that is implicit in any notion of veiled working women.

It is heartening to note that nearly 80 percent of respondents were opposed to the Taliban, and an even greater majority considered suicide bombing prohibited in Islam. Processes of higher education generally do produce enough good sense and awareness not to succumb to extremist ideas, but exceptions are always there. On the whole, higher education means that the chances of having a good life and a good income improve and thus also the value of life.

Individuals such as Aafia Siddiqui and Faisal Shahzad are an exception to the rule. Faisal Shahzad may believe he knows what awaits him when he enters paradise, but the benefits due to women in that abode of boundless plenty remain unclear. I have discussed this with many ulema, but never got a satisfactory answer. Perhaps someone can elaborate it for us in a Daily Times op-ed.

The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at

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