The Fight for Pakistan’s Future: Violently Reflected on Campus

The New York Times, Published April 20, 2010

By SABRINA TAVERNISE; Waqar Gillani contributed reporting.

April 21 (New York Times) — LAHORE, Pakistan – The professor was working in his office here on the campus of Pakistan’s largest university this month when members of an Islamic student group battered open the door, beat him with metal rods and bashed him over the head with a giant flower pot.

Iftikhar Baloch, an environmental science professor, had expelled members of the group for violent behavior. The retribution left him bloodied and nearly unconscious, and it united his fellow professors, who protested with a nearly three-week strike that ended Monday.

The attack and the anger it provoked have drawn attention to the student group, Islami Jamiat Talaba, whose morals police have for years terrorized this graceful, century-old institution by brandishing a chauvinistic form of Islam, teachers here say.

But the group has help from a surprising source – national political leaders who have given it free rein, because they sometimes make political alliances with its parent organization, Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s oldest and most powerful religious party, they say.

The university’s plight encapsulates Pakistan’s predicament: an intolerant, aggressive minority terrorizes a more open-minded, peaceful majority, while an opportunistic political class dithers, benefiting from alliances with the aggressors.

The dynamic helps explain how the Taliban and other militant groups here, though small and often unpopular minorities, retain their hold over large portions of Pakistani society.

But this is the University of the Punjab, Pakistan’s premier institution of higher learning, with about 30,000 students, and a principal avenue of advancement for the swelling ranks of Pakistan’s lower and middle classes.

The battle here concerns the future direction of the country, and whether those pushing an intolerant vision of Islam will prevail against this nation’s beleaguered, outward-looking, educated class.

That is why the problem of Islami Jamiat Talaba is so urgent, teachers say.

“They are hooligans with a Taliban mentality and they should be banned, full stop,” Maliha A. Aga, a teacher in the art department, said of the student group as she stood in a throng of protesters in professorial robes this month. “That’s the only way this university will survive.”

The rhetoric of the group, like that of its parent political party, is strongly anti-West,  chauvinistic and intolerant of Pakistan’s religious minorities. It was a vocal supporter of the Taliban, until doing so became unpopular last year.

Its members block music classes, ban Western soft drinks and beat male students for sitting near girls on the university lawn.

“It’s fascist,” said Shaista Sirajuddin, an English literature professor, of the Islamic student movement. “Every single government has averted its eyes.”

 The group is something of a puzzle. It may be aggressive, but it is relatively small, and has waned in popularity among students in recent years. One young teacher said association with it now brought stigma.

But it still manages to dominate by deftly wielding Islam as a weapon to bludgeon its enemies, denouncing anyone who disagrees with it as un-Islamic.

The tactic is effective in Pakistan, a young country whose early confusion about the role of Islam in society has hardened into a rigid certainty, making it highly taboo to question.

“It’s unthinkable to talk even about human rights without reference to the Holy Book,” said Ms. Sirajuddin, referring to the Koran. “Such is the dread to be talked about as un-Islamic.”

The reason goes back to history. In the 1980s, an American-supported autocrat, Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, seeded the education system with Islamists in an effort to forge a unified Pakistani identity. At the University of the Punjab, that created a pool of supporters for Islami Jamiat Talaba among teachers, making the group all but impossible to eject.

It has left liberal teachers like Ms. Sirajuddin despairing for their institution, which once upon a time produced three Nobel laureates. Now, they say, it is a shadow of its former self and no  longer a safe environment for young people to exchange ideas.

One of the leaders of the group’s national chapter, Nadim Ahmed, condemned the beating as “shameful,” and said the main attackers had been suspended. But he emphasized that the group itself was peaceful. Its only ambitions, he said, are to welcome new students and organize book  fairs.

But students and teachers say the group’s aim is power, and that it uses violence to get it. A  teacher, who would give her name only as Ms. Tayyib, fearing retribution, said group members twice attacked sports events she had organized, once wielding chairs. The recently formed music  department has never been able to hold a class on campus.

“Every second issue is a sin,” Ms. Tayyib said. The intimidation has poisoned the academic  atmosphere, said another young teacher, Nazia, who was also too fearful to allow her full name to be printed. “Jamiat is a threat for teachers,” Nazia said. “That weakens the quality of  education.”

  Mr. Baloch, the teacher who was beaten on April 1, had taken a stand against them. He identified the ringleader as Usman Ashraf, a 26-year-old geology graduate student, whose mug shot is posted in departments around campus.

“I received many applications” complaining of abuses, he said while convalescing in his home. “And more or less every second one had his name on it.”

Just as in Pakistan as a whole, the stakes in this power game are property and money, and the student group has both. It is deeply embedded in the life of the campus, controlling the dormitories, the cafeterias and the campus snack shops.

The group created a parallel administration, according to a former member, Nadim Jamil, and has divided the university into five zones, with a nazim, or mayor, assigned to each. The dormitories are their fiefdoms, he said, where mayors monitor movements, hold Koran reading  classes and recruit members.

The university is as ineffectual as the group is organized: There are dormitory ID cards, but no one bothers to check them, said Ms. Tayyib, who used to live in the girls’ dormitory, which is also controlled by the group.

“It’s our fault,” Ms. Tayyib said. “We are weak. The administration is lethargic.”

As unpopular as it may be on campus, the group never has trouble getting recruits. Many first-year students are shy, underprivileged youths from the countryside. The group appeals to this weakness, helping with expenses and opening up a system of benefits: More milk in their tea. Better food. Cleaner dishes.

“It’s an addiction,” Ms. Tayyib said, describing the thinking of the young recruits. “I’m from a remote area, and no one ever listened to me. But now I’m important.”

Mr. Baloch, who received more than 30 stitches in his head, said he believed that the attack had galvanized public opinion against the group and that it would serve to turn people against it. “The wheels of justice grind slowly but surely,” he said.

Others are less certain. Last week, several of the attackers were arrested, but Mr. Ashraf, the ringleader, was not among them. Besides, the group’s top leader on campus is the son of an important politician.

“This opportunity will be lost,” said Nazia, the young teacher. “I know it’s pessimistic, but it’s what I’m thinking.”


Filed under human rights, Islam, Left, liberal Pakistan, Politics, psychology, Punjab, youth

12 responses to “The Fight for Pakistan’s Future: Violently Reflected on Campus

  1. ylh

    Excellent article …but Zia was not interested in any “unified” Pakistani identity. Zia did more to sow ethnic dischord in Pakistan …he encouraged ethno-fascists all over Pakistan as much as he encouraged these Jamiat Ghundas and dogs.

  2. Junaid

    Cut their source of funding and power and things will get back to normal.

    Starve these dogs to death.

  3. Luq

    Why are you insulting dogs ?


  4. Sadia Hussain

    The campus politics is constructive activity but it should not permit violence in any form. The religious militants promote intolerance is universities and serve the role of self-appointed morality police. Student unions must flourish but the sanctity of educational institutes needs to be kept intact. We cannot let our youth fall prey to militancy.

  5. Zulfiqar Haider

    The author has clearly identified the ground realities in the PU campus. I had visited the campus a number of times and have seen the whole thing with my own eyes, especially during the admission season; it is very common to see the members of IJT opening their own admission counters, mainly to attract more students in their party. Now is the right time, because Hit the iron when it’s hot; concerned authorities must do something about this issue, otherwise the peace and calm of this campus would be lost forever.

  6. High time that this diseased brainchild of Jamaat-e-Shaitani is dealt with once and for all…

    Just my 2 cents!

  7. pHaze

    “The tactic is effective in Pakistan, a young country whose early confusion about the role of Islam in society has hardened into a rigid certainty, making it highly taboo to question.”

    All this to me reminds me of the heydays of the Taliban in Afghanistan. They ordered every painting, statues, literature works etc to be burnt down. Even the Afghan historical movies werent spared. The entire collection of Afgan films were burnt down. (Fortunately, some very brave people duped the Taliban, and luckily some films and paintings were saved.) I’m amazed at how some bigots can hold the conscience of a such a large majority to ransom.

    In an earlier post I had mentioned about Indonesia. (some moderator chap deleted it I suppose). Being a country with 98% muslims, the national epic is the Ramayana (or mahabharata). Even people have sanskrit(hindu) sounding names. Indonesia too, is culturally and linguistically as complex as India, yet muslims there hold on to their traditional belief and see no conflict with their practicing Islam. Perhaps MAJ had envisioned a Pakistan like this?, but the nation seems
    to drift in the exact opposite direction.

  8. UETian

    This has been the case with UET once however they eradicated by using armed forces…we need similar at PU to clean it once and for all…

  9. Israr

    To save Pakistan’s future generations from these savages, JI and its illegal child JTI should be banned. Barred from using name of Islam. On any voilent action such as this one, FIR should be registered against Amir JI.

  10. Yasir Qadeer

    The anger, frustration and depression this nation has been injected with results in violence and extremist behavior. Change cannot happen over-night and we must accept it. It takes years and ages for a nation to transform itself. Students are the future of any nation. It is the responsibility of teachers to make sure that they are taught on liberal and tolerant lines, so that they can adopt both these virtues in their daily lives. If any student is involved in any extremist ideas, he must be confronted head on by the authorities.

  11. Jamal

    “Now let’s have a look at what Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi had to say in support of Paksitan as told by Sardar Shaukat Hayat:

    “Reaching Pathankot, I met Maulana Maudoodi at Qaid-e-Azam’s behest. He was staying at the garden adjacent to the village of Chaudhry Niaz. When I conveyed Qaid-e-Azam’s message to him asking for his blessings and support, he replied he could never pray for Napak-istan ( unholy state) adding that Pakistan could not come into existence until the entire population in India did not become Muslim. That was the vision and point of view of the leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami.”

  12. Sadia Hussain

    Campus politics in Pakistan has been dominated with violence by militant groups who are at time sympathetic to Taliban, it is ironic that liberal and progressive elements have always been shunned and discouraged. To eradicate extremism from academic institutions firstly we have to give more space to progressive voices and then take strict actions against all militant organizations in colleges and universities.