Why do militants attack educational institutions?

Just as we started celebrating Pakistan’s progress in the last year in cracking down on domestic terrorism, we hear about the attack on Bacha Khan University in the north-west of the country. In another brazen attack, carried out on Jan. 20, gunmen killed 19 people and injured 17.

Just like the late 2014 attack on the Peshawar school, which forced the country’s leadership into the recent crackdown on militants, this attack is a highly symbolic one targeting “Western,” as opposed to Taliban, education.

The university is named after a Pashtun nationalist leader who believed in non-violent struggle and would thus have been anathema to the militants’ ethos. The university provides education in English and teaches sciences to young people from this area near Afghanistan.

There is no greater threat to them than people who can read Islamic history and who know how much a betrayal of Islam this latter-day jihadism is

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Targeting institutions providing “Western” education is a common feature for many Islamist groups. Teaching boys English and science is one thing, for example. But teaching girls anything at all is especially frowned upon. In Afghanistan, burning down girls schools has been common practice.

Malala became an international symbol as a result of this mind-set. We should also not forget the other tens of thousands of girls that have been and continue to be affected by this problem.

At the other end of the Islamic world, in Nigeria, we see a very similar phenomenon with Boko Haram. The militant group’s name literally means (Western) books or “Boko” are “haram” or prohibited. So “non-Islamic or Western education is forbidden,” especially for women.

No ideological dogma

But for these groups this isn’t just some ideological dogma but an obvious tactical requirement. The biggest threat to the propagation of ideas that these militants are trying to push – and to their survival in the long run – are educated young Muslims who can recognize the vacuousness and perversity of their ideology.

There is no greater threat to them than people who can read Islamic history and who know how much a betrayal of Islam this latter-day jihadism is.

These organizations can only be successful and survive if they have an unlimited supply of recruits who are uneducated and thus can be easily brainwashed into their little cults.

That was the function of some of the madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In most cases this was the only education available to swathes of the country, especially for the children of the poorest.

I have found that this distinction does become pertinent very quickly. When I visited Pakistan almost a decade ago for some field research into militancy, I found that the leaders of some of the very large ultra conservative groups, who openly supported extremist elements, do not advocate strict Taliban education for everyone.

After meeting them, I was surprised at two things. First, how good an English they spoke and how they boasted that their children are studying in the West.

One of them mentioned that his daughter was attending the University of Virginia, another mentioned Bradford in England, while another one mentioned some university in Australia.

I took away two things from these meetings. The leaders of these groups are not so keen on their own children having a “proper, Islamic” education, or indeed becoming martyrs. That honour is bestowed on other people’s children, usually those from the poorest families.

I also found it very surprising that they could afford to send their children to Western universities. Having worked as an academic in the U.S., I know very well that to send a couple of children to study there is not cheap, let alone for someone from a village in Pakistan.

Ultimately, it is also a profoundly interesting choice. Think how many Kalashnikovs and mortar bombs you could buy for that money to fight your “holy war.” And yet, when given the opportunity, they would choose to use that money to buy Western education. Very interesting indeed.

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Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:47 - GMT 06:47
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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