Radicalization and the role of the teacher

The paper was presented in a conference organized by Air University Islamabad.


Alarm bells were sounded on 17 April 2017, when Mashal Khan a student of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan was lynched in the campus by fellow students for allegedly posting blasphemous material online. The gory incident made national headlines. There was widespread condemnation of students for being allowed to take law into their own hands and for the University authority’s inability to prevent it from happening. The perpetrators were tried by an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC); one person was awarded death sentences and five were sentenced for life.

There can be a number of reasons for this brutal murder but clearly the greatest casualty of the entire incident was tolerance. The responsibility to groom children to be tolerant of other people’s views is primarily that of the parents but as they enter school or go to a college or university, this onerous task shifts to the teachers. Unless the teachers do not believe in the importance of tolerance, campuses will continue be rocked by incidents such as the one that resulted in the killing of Mashal Khan.

This paper posits that universities should make a strategic investment in teachers to ensure peace at the campuses. The teacher should not only be selected carefully i.e. screened for their views, they should be institutionally trained to temper their opinions to spread peace and harmony at the campuses. It is recommended that HEC should come up with a policy that proposes training teachers to learn the basic tenets of peace. The expertise of those teaching peace studies be utilised in this peacebuilding exercise. 

*Associate Dean Centre for International Peace & Stability (CIPS), National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST) Islamabad.

Keywords: Higher Education Commission (HEC), Radicalization, Role of Teachers, Universities in Pakistan.


Universities play an important role in the life of a nation. It is a well-known fact that Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) not only provided leadership for the Pakistan movement but also for the new state, after independence. Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father was very proud of the students of Aligarh and called the university the arsenal of Muslim India.[1] Jinnah Saheb visited Aligarh on a number of occasions. In fact he came to the AMU more than any other Indian leader at that time.[2]  Since Aligarh was located in an area that became part of India, many Muslims left for their new homeland leaving the university that had made their dream possible behind. It is unfortunate indeed that the portrait of Mr Jinnah, the most ardent admire of the university and the one who endowed part of his inheritance to this university, has now been removed from the offices of AMU because a rabid Hindu politician considered it offensive.[3]

   When Pakistan came into being there was only one university here; the University of the Punjab with an enrolment of 644 only.[4] Due to the dynamics of the partition, many good teachers and students migrated from Lahore to India. Pakistan and its higher institutions of learning had to be built up brick by brick. New universities were established slowly and steadily. A list of ranking gives the names of 174 universities in Pakistan that are recognized by the Higher Education Commission (HEC).[5] Most of these are public sector universities, while some are private ones.[6] Despite the mushrooming of universities, these are still inadequate for the very large population of young Pakistanis, 21.4 per cent of whom find themselves in the university going age bracket. Out of these 22,337,897 are male and 20,980,455 female. With an estimated population of 220 million, their number should be around 50 million young people. So actually about 5 to 10 million have escaped the notice of census takers. Some of the bigger universities have a student population of 15000 to 20000 but even this doesn’t add up to the number of young people who need to be in the universities and the number (if they have the requisite education) is higher than 10 million. The largest number of students opt for distance learning and get admission in Allama Iqbal Open University and the Virtual University. According to HEC statistics, Pakistan produced 228617 university graduates in 2015.[7] This number is far too low to run the country’s industry, businesses, banking sector, academia and administration.

It is also quite another matter that only a select few students going to the university find a chance to get an education in core subjects now recognized as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Most of the university students don’t go beyond undergraduate level. There many reasons for this attrition. Many simply lack the resources to go for post graduate studies and are under family pressure to start earning. Others and this includes the of course the best and the brightest, who aim to go for foreign universities, where they feel they have better learning opportunities that would ensure a better future for them.

Notwithstanding the fact that the current number of our universities is not enough to absorb all our young people, these also suffer from intrinsic constraints such as lack of adequate funding, good infrastructure, efficient administration, a curriculum that matches the national aspirations and market requirements and most importantly the quality of students and teachers is not optimal.

One of the most alarming thing in this complex milieu is that our universities are also witnessing a dangerous trend of radicalization on the campuses. The most visible and gory demonstration of this drift has been the lynching of Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan. The incident took place when angry crowd killed Mashal on 17 April 2017 for allegedly posting blasphemous content online. This set alarm bells ringing across the nation. The press carried headlines of this violent incident and widespread condemnation was expressed by all segments of the society. Since then law has taken its course. The perpetrators of this heinous crime have been brought to book and some of them have been served with life imprisonment but this is not the end of the matter.[8] More important in this regard is that the universities need to come up with a joint plan to eradicate radicalization from their campuses under the directions given by HEC.        

The Concept of a University and the importance of a Mentor

Before proceeding any further it is important to understand the concept of a university. It is commonly understood that university is a higher institute of learning, where both teaching and research are conducted. It is not just a degree awarding institute, it is the engine of research and place, which provides the young people the platform to combine their positive energies with their creative talents to produce new thoughts and new products. E.D. Nakpodia from the Department of Education Administration and Policy Studies, Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria describes university as a learning organization with a strong humanistic orientation.  It is a place, where people continue to strive to learn and produce new knowledge but also as a place where they learn to co-habit together and learn from each other’s experiences.[9] This is a very apt description in many ways.

Pakistan has a variety of universities i.e. public and private, vocational and distance learning. HEC does its best to rationalize the courses being run in the universities to match the job market but it is a sad fact that many do not find a suitable employment in the fields of study that they chose in the university. This however is true for all countries. Only those who graduate in specific subjects like medicine and engineering practice their particular art in real life. Others find their niche sometimes in totally unrelated fields. In Pakistan some highly qualified doctors and engineers choose to sit for the competitive examination to fill up seats in the federal and provincial Administrative Services.

Irrespective of where they finally land up, most students enter the university as young adults after finishing high school or college. Many find it to be a liberating experience, provided the university encourages free thinking. A good university is expected to provide an environment that should give a full range of exciting possibilities to a young person. If he or she is lucky, it is here that that a student will find a sense of direction and purpose in life. In addition to a regular supply of knowledge prescribed in the curriculum, famous universities give its alumnus an extra sheen of prestige and recognition. Graduates of Ivy League universities proudly flaunt their academic credentials and bask in the collective glory of being part of an acclaimed alumni network. Jobs are easy to come by and famous men and women can be cited as referents on a candidates CV.

            In the life after the university, a person remembers his or her alma mater for many reasons but one thing is for sure, a good professor can never be forgotten. A professor should ideally play a pivotal role in the education of a university student and should be the inspiration for a life changing experience. Conversely a bad professor can lead the students astray and may be responsible for actually their destroying lives. Many students take pride in the fact that they learned their trade at the feat of famous scholars. In ancient times it was a source of pride to find a place in the inner circle of philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. In more contemporary times, the supervisor is very careful in choosing the candidate he or she is going to supervise. A good student can be a professor’s lasting legacy. On the flipside a good supervisor can be a lucky breakthrough for a student in his her or her academic pursuits. A good professor can unlock the mysteries of the world or at least prove to be the Rosetta stone with the inscribed logic to decipher hidden truths.  

It is a moot point, whether the universities in Pakistan provide the kind of atmosphere that give stimulus for intellectual growth. Some private universities have earned a name for themselves for being the leading institutions of learning matching international standards. Examples are few and far between but those commonly cited include Lahore University of management Sciences (LUMS) and Agha Khan Medical University (AKU). Institute of Business management (IBA) has also has a brand name status. National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) is counted as the top engineering university in Pakistan. NUST is a public sector university and the bulk of its students represent the middle or lower classes of the society. In case of LUMS, AKU and IBA most of the students represent the nation’s elite. They come from good families and have attended the best schools in the country. Most of them go abroad for further studies. A visit to LUMS gives one a feeling of immense freedom. Students follow an illiberal dress code. Some are dressed in designer jeans, while others are engulfed in flowing robes. Some are bearded and veiled and give a pious appearance, while others have an air of irreverence but overall one can sense a deep feeling of academic seriousness.

One can feel a sense of independence in the Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad as well but here the milieu is more representative. There students are from all over Pakistan. Some of them actually come from the remotest corners. They can be identified by their culturally unique dresses but also from a variety of headgear they wear. They join ethnic groups to protect their interests and many times they find themselves at odds with the university administrations over poor or inefficient hostel facilities. It is not infrequent that the university closes down because of strikes either by the students or faculty members.

The kind of atmosphere that prevailed in Abdul Wali Khan University when Mashal Khan was killed was probably not the best of times. I suspect there were groups within the university belonging to both the religious fundamentalists and those espousing secular ideals. The two groups clashed over ideological differences resulting in the unfortunate incident. Obviously the university administration and the teaching staff could not detect the simmering animosity and did not take preventive action to pre-empt the incident. One thing is certain that the role of mentor was missing. It is mandatory for universities to have a student councillor. I’m not sure if it was the case in Abdul Wali Khan University.

The recruitment in a Pakistani university is fairly straight forward. The prospective teacher should have a degree in the relevant discipline. The HEC insists that all assistant professors should now hold a PhD degree. The final selection is done by a university board comprising the academic hierarchy, the deans and heads of departments and members of the human resource directorate. The selection board does its due diligence before the hiring process. The prospective teacher is called to deliver a seminar and discreet inquiries are made from those given in the list of references. Usually the reputation of a teacher precedes him or her and it makes the job of the selection board to select or reject him or her. The universities are always on the lookout of candidates with strong education background and where possible, preference is given to those who have degrees from international universities. Once hired the professor steadily climbs up the ladder and remains on the job unless he or she decides to go for a post-doctoral degree or he or she finds a more paying job in another university (most likely one located in the Gulf). In a decision made by the HEC in 2015, it was stated that a teacher should have made a contribution to the society. How is this particular trait gauged is not known but many universities now have a course for community service in which some faculty members do willingly contribute.

Do teachers formally mentor is a question that defies a straight forward answer. Yes some teachers take mentoring seriously but in some cases the teacher is too pre-occupied or indifferent to student’s academic or personal problems. It is not unknown that there are always students (though a very tiny minority) with suicidal tendencies. I know that in NUST some teachers have specialised in dealing with student with disabilities and they lecture their colleagues in enhancing these skills but I am not aware if this practice is followed in other universities. I am not sure whether students are regularly counselled about their emotional problems.     

It is instructive to note that a university teacher in the UK is required to provide pastoral care to the students.[10] A University of Canberra describes pastoral care as

An ancient model of emotional and spiritual support that can be found in all cultures and traditions. It has been described in our modern context as individual and corporate patience in which trained pastoral carers support people in their pain, loss and anxiety, and their triumphs, joys and victories.[11]

The pastoral model provides spiritual help that transcends religion. In this system one person practicing one creed may seek help from another subscribing to another faith.

In the US, a number of universities offer degrees in counselling but it does not stop frequent incidents of shootings on their campus. Recently a young Pakistani Fulbright scholar fell a victim to a shooting incident in a university, where she was studying as an exchange student.[12] The problem is that the new American generation has become inured to violence that is shown to them on a daily basis on television and the cinema screens. An easy access to firearms helps them play out their fantasies and extract revenge from a society, which they find unhelpful and hostile. Unfortunately the powerful national Rifle Association (NRA) refuses to put a ban on free purchase of guns to private citizens. This is an enduring issue that the American society is struggling to resolve.

The Solution

The solution to violence and radicalizations in our universities needs deep introspection.  First and foremost all universities should be careful in selecting their teachers and students. Those exhibiting violent tendencies should be weeded out in the process of selection. The teachers should be in particular have the potential to be role models for the future generations. They should have pleasing personalities and should exude confidence and cheer from their persona. A brooding personality can be contagious. A teacher spreading hate should not be permitted on the campus. Without trying to be popular, a teacher should be encouraged to portray the highest qualities of probity, discipline and fair play. A teacher should never be aloof and should always be accessible to the students. He or she should win their confidence and be an inspiration for the students in words and deeds.

It would be in the interest of the universities to make a strategic investment in their faculty members. A teacher can simultaneously be a friend of the students and eyes and ears for the administration. Without betraying the students, a teacher can convey the prevailing trends on the campuses so that necessary course corrections can be taken to remove the causes of agitation and unhappiness on the campus. 

            A teacher should not only be selected on merit but should be carefully screened for his or her views. This is not to say that religious or political opinions of a person should be held against him or her and bar his or her entry into academia but if there is a tendency towards violence and if it can be detected at the time of the interview, that teacher should not be hired. A teacher should be one who has the capacity to spread cheer and good humour and peace and harmony on the campus. It would not be out of place to recommend that a teacher once hired should be trained in the basic tenets of peace and amity. A code of conduct for the teachers can be developed that should be instrumental in spreading peace and stability in the campus and prepare the students to be responsible citizens once they step out in the practical life. A teacher can wield a great deal of influence over the students that he or she teaches. This position must never be used to spread discontent and encourage the students to indulge in violence.

It is extremely important that a policy of de-radicalization and peace and harmony should be prepared by the HEC by involving all Vice Chancellors. A comprehensive policy should emphasise the role of teachers in mentoring the students in a way that they do not encourage violence and steer clear of virulent ideologies. The genre of peace studies is finding acceptance in some universities. Those universities having departments teaching peace studies should be encouraged to develop syllabus that should be mandatory for all under graduate and post graduate courses. This would mean that there should be more teachers to train in the nuances of peace. This may mean more moneys diverted towards this seemingly innocuous subject but his would be well worth the investment. The ‘peace teachers’ should be given the mandate to run regular workshops, seminars and exercises to develop peaceful tendencies among the students. 


Universities are places, where future leaders are made. Therefore, it is most essential that they do not become radicalized in a negative manner. In no case should they fall prey to virulent ideologies. The teacher has a pivotal role in the grooming of the students. He or she not only shapes their raw talent and energy into a positive manner, without letting them become conformists in a pliant way but also teaches the student to believe in the basic values of humanity. The teacher should be the one who teaches his or her students to be tolerant of other people’s views and not judge them from the religious or social standards that they have learnt in their homes. Universities are the place, where the student are taught to think beyond one’s creed and worldview. The overarching thought process should be that one’s colour, caste, creed or religious and political views do not matter and should in no way become an impediment in the developments of their minds. In this regard faith has to be placed in the university teacher.

It is most important that HEC gives out a national policy enshrining the teacher’s role in eradicating radical views in the universities. The aim should be to make the higher institutes of learning a more inclusive place. It should then be the duty of the administration of all the universities to implement this policy and advise the teachers to play their due role in this process. The universities should be asked to develop a peace syllabus in collaboration with their departments of peace studies and all teachers should be trained to teach and practice it in true letter and spirit.  

[1] Sameen Khan, “Mr Jinnah – As I knew him,” http://m-a-jinnah.blogspot.com/2010/12/mr-jinnah-as-i-knew-him.html (accessed September 20, 2018).

[2] Mukhtar Masood, an Alig has described the visits of Mr Jinnah in his book Harf-i-Shouq (Lahore: Maktaba-i-Tameer-Insaniat, 2017).

[3] Manish Chandra Pandey, “Adityanath seeks removal of Jinnah portrait from AMU amid uneasy calm on campus,” Hindustan Times, May 3, 2018, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/adityanath-seeks-removal-of-jinnah-portrait-from-amu-amid-uneasy-calm-on-campus/story-7CUgojR2h7ERWzndvDKtyO.html (accessed September 20, 2018).

[4] The University of the Punjab – History and Legacy, http://pu.edu.pk/page/show/History.html (accessed September 20, 2018).

[5] Top Universities in Pakistan, 2018 Pakistani University Ranking, https://www.4icu.org/pk/ (accessed September 20, 2018).

[6] HEC website gives 79 public and 32 private recognized universities, http://www.hec.gov.pk/english/universities/Pages/DAIs/HEC-recognized-Campuses.aspx (accessed September 20, 2018).

[7] Graduates having 16 years of Education and above from Universities Campuses and Affiliated Colleges including Distance Learning, http://hec.gov.pk/english/universities/Pages/AJK/Graduates-16-years.aspx (accessed September 20, 2018).

[8] 10 Months on: A timeline of the brutal lynching of mashal Kha,” Express Tribune, February 7, 2018, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1628444/1-10-months-timeline-brutal-lynching-mashal-khan/ (accessed September 20, 2018).

[9] E.D. Nakpodia, “The concept of the university as learning organization: Its functions, techniques and possible ways of making it effective,” Journal of Public Administration and Policy Research, Vol. 1(5): 79-83, September, 2009 Available online http://www.academicjournals.org/jpapr (accessed September 20, 2018).

[10] University Teacher (HE), https://www.jobs.ac.uk/careers-advice/job-profiles/1807/university-teacher-he (accessed September 20, 2018).

[11] What does it mean to be a pastoral care worker? http://www.canberra.edu.au/current-students/canberra-students/student-support/multi-faith-centre/pastoral-care/pastoral-worker (accessed September 20, 2018).

[12] “Pakistani Student Sabika Sheikh killed in Texas school shooting,” Aljazeera, May 20, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/05/pakistan-student-sabika-sheikh-killed-texas-sante-fe-school-shooting-180519094125326.html (accessed September 20, 2018).

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