Today, I woke up to an LA Times piece about the Islami-Jamiat-i-Taliba and their thuggery on campuses across Punjab. Those of you who've read it would know that the story doesn't say anything new, and, more importantly, is guilty of portraying the rise of this right-wing student group as a relatively new phenomenon. The IJT has been terrorising campuses for as long as I can remember, and writers like Nadeem F. Piracha have filled pages after pages highlighting their rise to absolute campus dominance, under the protective hand of the state, in the 80's and the 90's.
The IJT, while formally stating autonomy, is widely known to be the student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami, and several, if not most, Jamaat leaders have been part of it at some point or another. Chronological expediency aside, here are a couple of parts in the piece that I found a little interesting:
The organization's clout illustrates the deep roots of Islamist extremism in Pakistani society, an influence that extends beyond radical religious schools and militant strongholds in the volatile tribal belt along the Afghan border.
University administrators fear that the IJT's influence on many campuses will lead to an increase in extremism among the middle class, from which the next generation of Pakistan's leaders will rise.
"These people have connections with jihadi groups, and they are taking hostage our campuses," said Sajid Ali, chairman of Punjab University's philosophy department. "This is a real danger for the future of our country."
Fellow students and teachers regard them as Islamist vigilantes. In addition to trying to separate the sexes, they order shopkeepers not to sell Coca-Cola or Pepsi because they are American brands. When they overhear a cluster of fellow students debating topics, from capitalism to religion, they demand that the discussion stop and threaten violence if it continues.
The Jamaat's connections with Jihadi organizations is, more or less, common knowledge, especially given the role played by the party during the Afghan-Soviet war. That said however, there are nuances to the sociology of the IJT and the Jamaat which a lot of foreign observers miss out on. Maybe I'm being a little unreasonable in expecting a better picture from an American newspaper, but it seems that in an effort to fall over each other in reporting on 'Extremism' and 'Fundamentalism', these papers are guilty of conflating mainstream political Islamism/conservatism and radicalization.
The former, in the case of Punjab especially, is covered on a spectrum which carries both the Jamaat-i-Islami and to a lesser extent the PML-N. While being an evolving organization, the Jamaat has stuck to generally agreed principles of playing within the defined political rules of the Pakistani state. They operate at both an electoral and a social level, in the manner of a classic Lenninist vanguard party, but they see democracy as a functional exercise that would lead to a larger, higher cause, as opposed to being the end-product of a country's political evolution in itself. The Jamaat cadre and voter-base in Punjab (and at one point in Karachi as well) is almost solely consisted of either the trading/mercantilist/industrialist class, or to a slightly lesser extent, the suburban professional middle class.
The Islami-Jamiat-i-Taliba (IJT) in one sense mirrors the same class in the 18-25 year age bracket. Many, but certainly not all, members of the IJT, or even IJT sympathizers, will end up as Jamaat voters. Some might join other political parties, like Ahsan Iqbal, Hussain Haqqani, and Javed Hashmi. Some, after joining the urban rat-race, will forget about politics all together. In a sense, the IJT radicalizes students at the college level, but that radicalization is tempered into bigotry, hypocrisy, and ritualistic conservatism as they grow older.
That in itself is not acceptable either. An environment where cross-gender relations are admonished, where lessons in public morality are handed out, and where killers are glorified in the name of religion, has a tendency to generate passive acceptance of extremism, at least on the fringes. Since the IJT and the Jamaat both borrow heavily from their interpretation of Islam to cobble together a world-view, it opens space for harsher, more far-right causes to use the same instrument. In a sense, curbing the influence of the Jamaat, and more so, the IJT, are important in any effort to generate acceptance of progressive ideals in society.
The crucial difference here is that tackling extremism and tackling mainstream conservativism are two inter-related, yet actionably distinct things. The Jamaat, as it stands now, has lost all electoral prospects in Punjab and Karachi. The resurgence of the PML-N, first in 1997, and then in 2008 has weaned away most of their electorate, as highlighted by multiple by-elections. What little remained has flocked over to the PTI. So the fundamental thing is that in power politics the Jamaat can be, and has been, countered by simple electoral calculus. In a university environment, people want to sit with the opposite sex, want to drink Pepsi (although I think that's an exaggeration by the writer), and want to watch Indian movies. These are the very same urges that dumb-down their 'radicalized' demeanors when they finally graduate from college/university. If the Jamaat can be contained by somewhat softer alternatives, the IJT can be dealt with through open Union elections as well.
The LA Times report makes it look like Punjab University is producing jihadis as opposed to the mostly conservative, critically disengaged students that they actually are. Such a portrayal not only induces false alarmism about a genuine problem, but also takes away focus from the actual methods of countering Islamism in educational institutions.