University of Punjab students protest against Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) and extremism on campus
The New York Times today reports a troubling story about the rise of extremism on college campuses in Pakistan. College campuses have long been home to twenty-somethings experimenting with radical thought. Even conservative commentator P.J. O’Rourke was a college Marxist in his day. But are Pakistan’s centers of education becoming incubators for extremist ideology and violence? There are many reasons to believe that, despite the Times story, the answer is no.
The Times story begins by noting that posters were plastered around the University of Punjab advertising an essay contest eulogizing Osama bin Laden. No sponsor was listed on the posters, and the only contact information given was an email address. No award ceremony was presented, and it is not known whether any students actually participated in the mysterious “contest.” All in all, not much of a story.
With little substance to the story of the mysterious flyers, the reporter shifts to a discussion of the student organization Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), a youth organization started in 1947 by Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi – founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami political party.
The IJT is notorious for its conservative brand of Islam, and the violence with which it enforces its beliefs on college campuses. Though the group claims popular support, this is belied by the fact that the group is forced to resort to threats of violence against its fellow students.
As Salman Masood reports, IJT members in June beat a male student for sitting too close to a female colleague – an act they deemed un-Islamic. Despite IJT’s willingness to resort to violence, Pakistani students are standing up to IJT. After the incident in June, students held a demonstration against the IJT’s tactics. University administrators, too, are cracking down by expelling students involved in extremism.
Political extremism is a problem on college campuses across cultures, even in the US. In 2000, racist flyers were posted on the University of Texas campus twice in one month. In 2005, pro-Nazi flyers were distributed on campus at Central Michigan University. In 2009, Neo-Nazi posters were found at Bucknell University’s campus. While this is a problem, it is one that should be addressed in a way that recognizes the unique political environment of college campuses.
The intensity of student politics is amplified by the energy and passion of youth. As newly independent adults, campus activists often find themselves pushing boundaries and testing the limits of social acceptability. Whether or not IJT itself is complicit in promoting sympathy for a figure like Osama bin Laden, Americans should take heart from the fact that the views of IJT are still so unpopular that they must be enforced at gunpoint.
There are thousands of reasons to believe that Pakistan’s university campuses are not becoming hotbeds of extremism – each of those reasons is a moderate Pakistani student who rejects such ideologies. Rather than treating all Pakistani students as suspect because of the actions of a few misguided activists, those who support democracy and justice in Pakistan should support the moderate majority of students in Pakistan to ensure they are able to receive a quality education that they can take into the workforce to tackle the challenges facing their nation.