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February 10, 2018

Can liberal arts education prevent someone from straying to extremism?


February 10, 2018

The debate on whether universities are the nurseries of terrorism or not dates back almost to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US when some of the perpetrators were found to be well-educated individuals who had studied in Europe, said Dr Farrukh Iqbal, the dean and director of Institute of Business Administration on Friday.

Speaking at a session titled ‘Universities or Nurseries of Terrorism?’ on the first day of the Karachi Literature Festival, Iqbal cited ‘The Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education’, a book by Diego Gambetta and Setffen Hertog, and said that among the sample of 500 people involved in terrorism that the authors looked at, most of them were engineers and raised in Western countries.

Iqbal said that the men mentioned in the book chose to be involved in terrorist activities because they were frustrated with their careers and the lack of job opportunities. “They were not forced into it, they chose to enlist voluntarily,” he said, adding that the men’s choice reflected their personalities.

According to Iqbal, the terrorists mentioned in the book had an education in science and technology – the same fields that people in our part of the world prefer over liberal arts and social sciences. He said such kind of backward thinking is what creates radicalism since these fields allow little space for critical thinking like liberal arts of social sciences do.

Malir University of Science and Technology Vice-chancellor Professor Mehtab S Karim, another panellist at the session, said universities are supposed to be cradles of knowledge but unfortunately Pakistan had the lowest rate of varsity enrolment in Asia.

He termed the large number of young people not attending any institute of higher academic learning as a major problem, saying this deprives youth of the opportunity to broaden their thinking and leaves them vulnerable to believing misinformation from groups that mean harm.

Panellist Muhammad Ali Sheikh, the VC of Sindh Madressatul Islam University, said radicalisation had been injected into Pakistani society by “incompetent and extremist rulers of the country”.

“Diversity that once was seen here in abundance has reduced while religious student organisations backed by the state have dictated the terms,” he said, referring to the extremist influences in public varsities.

“We as a nation don’t like diversity,” said Sheikh. He added that Hindus and Christians living in the country have been forced to leave, while those left behind have started fighting among themselves. “Sunnis fight Sunnis. Shias fight Shias,” the VC said.

Expressing his view, Wasif Rizvi, the president of Habib University, said most of the terrorists were business graduates, scientists and engineers, while the tendency of social sciences and liberal arts graduates to tilt to extremism was lesser.

“The problem was created by [former military ruler] Ayub Khan. [He] in his ill-fated decree said that in Pakistan there should be universities of medical and engineering and the rest of the subjects should not be given priority,” he remarked.

Such decisions are coming back to haunt us with incidents like the Safoora bus carnage and social activist Sabeen Mahmud’s murder, Rizvi said.

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