March 9, 2018 Special Dispatch No. 7370

Pakistani Columnist Kamila Hayat: 'New Research Points To An Unexpected Link Between The Study Of Science, Particularly Engineering, And Militant Attacks'

March 9, 2018
Pakistan | Special Dispatch No. 7370

Militant students of Jamia Hafsa madrassa in Islamabad (Image courtesy: The Friday Times).

Given below are excerpts from an article written by noted Pakistani columnist Kamila Hayat that examines the link between religious extremism and engineering disciplines, which promote regimented thinking among students:

"Within Our Own Country As Well As Beyond, There Has Been Much Focus On Madrassas Or Seminaries Promoting Extremism, In Some Cases Violence Too"

"Within our own country [Pakistan] as well as beyond, there has been much focus on madrassas or seminaries promoting extremism, in some cases violence too, through their teachings and philosophy. However, new research points to an unexpected link between the study of science, particularly engineering, and militant attacks. The issue was discussed in detail at a panel discussion held at the recent Karachi Literature Festival.

"Leading academicians suggested that one reason which explained the growth of extremist mindsets on university campuses and elsewhere, was our strong focus on teaching subjects that are rooted in technology, management or science. The dean of the prestigious Institute of Business Administration [IBA] in Karachi argued that the failure to direct sufficient attention to promote the study of liberal arts has bound students' capacity to think creatively and question what they are being taught.

"The IBA recently introduced a greater variety of subjects including those which fall within the broad sphere of humanities – the Lahore University of Management Sciences [LUMS] has been doing much the same. Also of interest is the fact that those involved with the admissions process at the prestigious Aga Khan University in Karachi, favor students who have studied a few humanities subjects. The university's admission test is also based around the idea of a candidate's ability to think and reason.

"In their new academic work 'Engineers Of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism And Education,' researchers Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog examined 400 militants, mainly in African countries. They found that a disproportionate number of them had studied engineering or related fields in their universities. This unusual correlation has been extensively discussed with some dismissing it as a mere coincidence, while others argue that the focus on facts, order, and regimented thought contained within a subject like engineering could have contributed to this unexpected trend."

"What Can, However, Not Be Denied Is The Fact That Majority Of Those Engaged In Militancy Received Western Education [In Engineering And Sciences]"

"In Britain, intelligence agencies are aware that radical Islamic groups often target engineering or technology students. Eight out of the 25 men involved in the 9/11 attack were engineers, including lead pilot Muhammad Atta. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of 9/11 and other horrendous attacks, was also an engineer by profession.

"There is obviously much to debate about this hypothesis. There is no doubt that it will be questioned and that people will come up with different conclusions. What can, however, not be denied is the fact that majority of those engaged in militancy received Western education [in engineering and sciences]; in many cases the perpetrators were graduates of colleges based in these nations. These then are not the madrassa students we have focused on for so long. Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, convicted in 2010 on seven counts of assault and attempted murder [and jailed in the U.S. for links with Al-Qaeda], was after all a neuroscientist educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The problem is only now receiving more and more attention around the world, with Princeton University and other centers of academic excellence conducting their own analyses. The findings that continue to emerge have linked technical field graduates with acts of violence. But the most obvious conclusion, that the skills scientists and engineers possess helps them make better bombs or plan attacks... falls into question when we note that those involved in them essentially masterminded the terrorist attacks rather than played a direct part in designing the actual equipment. They were not involved in the more mundane details of the actions that killed hundreds.

"The ongoing debate brings us to another interesting question. Seven out of the top 10 universities in Pakistan, ranked on the basis of their faculty, facilities, and results, among other factors, specialize in the studies of science or management. The eighth university on the list is the International Islamic University in Islamabad. This again compels one to question why there is such a strong focus on technical and also business-related fields.

"Academicians have linked this fact to the misguided decree issued during the reign of Field Marshal Ayub Khan [who ruled from 1958 to 1969] directing Pakistani universities to focus on the subjects of either medicine or engineering. This is one of the factors that have contributed to the widely held myth that science is somehow superior to humanities, and that one is only to achieve success by studying science."

"Developing The Ability To Think [Through Liberal Arts] May Be The Weapon We Can Most Effectively Use To Rein In The Irrational Thinking [Behind Extremism]"

"After the backgrounds of the 400 militants were researched, no political scientists or anthropologists were found among them. All were business graduates, engineers, doctors, or scientists. Quite beyond the issue of extremism we have the question of diversity or the need to promote different spheres in order to bring about balanced growth within our country. As more and more students are writing newspaper articles, blogs, or expressing their thoughts on social media and elsewhere, parental pressure to focus on science cripples many aspects of their personality.

"The realization by universities that they need to change their focus is an important one. But of course, many also fear the risks inherent in enabling young students to think. Even a globally acclaimed scientist like Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, known for his achievements in the field of Physics, has been labelled a traitor in Pakistan for daring to deviate from the expected line of thought.

"Beginning at the primary school level, we need to understand that the essence of being human lies in the ability to use one's mind in many different ways: such as thinking, reasoning, questioning, and understanding. These are all capacities we do not encourage. In the earliest years of education children are coerced into abandoning their curiosity and are instead forced to rote learn the content in their textbooks. Even the best schools and the most educated parents appear to believe in this formula. We need to challenge this notion as effectively as possible.

"Developing the ability to think [through liberal arts] may be the weapon we can most effectively use to rein in the irrational thinking we regularly come across in our society... As our leading university professors suggest, perhaps a turn towards subjects that encourage reasoning and extensive reading may hold the key to this change. Of course, science and mathematics are important components of education, but we can enable our future scientists, mathematicians and businesspersons to think and use their own intelligence in all matters.

"To achieve this, initiating programs which would promote the crucial habit of reading in children at a very young age should be the first step. From this we could move further and end the hierarchy of subjects that we have created. We should encourage all young students to opt for fields that generally interest them and which can help them achieve a greater balance in a society badly in need of more writers, thinkers, analysts, and scholars educated in the rich fields of literature, history, philosophy and other academic disciplines..."

Source: The News (Pakistan), February 22, 2018. The original English of the article has been lightly edited for clarity and standardization.

Share this Report: