Nurseries of Terrorism?
Since this is a literary festival, let me start on a literary note. I begin with the term nurseries of terrorism. This is a powerful metaphor; it sets up a vivid picture in your mind; you can almost see universities taking in human saplings and growing them into powerful agents of destruction.
This image differs from the more conventional image of the university as an oasis of calm and reason. A place of thinking and debating and writing; all nonviolent acts carried out by mild-mannered, innocuous professors and students.
How did this come about? Why would one even think about associating universities with terrorism?
I can think of a few incidents in Pakistan that may have inspired this problematic juxtaposition. The one that comes most readily to mind is also the most recent. It is the incident in Mardan where a student mob killed a fellow student on charges of blasphemy. This was surely an act of terrorism and it was carried out by university students inside a university.
It would be better, however, to frame the issue in a wider geographical perspective than that of Pakistan alone. The link between universities and terrorism dates back at least to the attacks of 9/11 when it began to be noted that the perpetrators were all well-educated youth, with some even educated in Europe. Since then, such a link has been talked about in other incidents of so-called Islamist terrorism in the West and noted as well in the composition of recruits joining the once-rampant but now defunct ISIS.
Is there really a link? Let us look at the empirical evidence on this point.
Empirical work on terrorism and education
I will talk about the results from one recent study. This is a careful statistical study of the educational backgrounds of jihadists. The title of the study, published as a book in 2016, is Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education. The authors are Diego Gambetta, a sociologist, and Steffen Hertog, a political scientist, both associated with the London School of Economics.
The database for this study consisted of 497 individuals known to be members of extremist Islamist groups that employed violence in pursuit of their aims. They comprised 35 different nationalities.
This study reports four related findings. The first and most dramatic finding is that engineers are "massively overrepresented" in this sample of jihadists. Some 43% studied engineering at university/college level.
A second finding is that engineers are as overrepresented among Western jihadists as among those from Islamic countries. This suggests that the reason why highly educated Muslims chose to become jihadists was not necessarily a lack of economic opportunities. The authors write, "Radical Islam cannot be reduced to the effects of high labor market expectations combined with failed economic development." Even in Western economies where job opportunities were plentiful, some highly trained Muslims chose to enlist voluntarily in extremist groups.
A third finding is that engineers tend to be overrepresented in rightwing groups but not in leftwing groups. This is true today as well as in earlier periods when leftwing extremism was more common, as in the 1960s and 1970s when groups such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Brigade were active.
What accounts for the connection between engineering and membership in extremist organizations? The authors argue that choices among academic disciplines reflect personality traits. In particular, those who have a need for "cognitive closure" are more likely to choose engineering and, of radicalized, prefer a violent or extremist path. This is the fourth finding.
Those who study humanities or even pure sciences tend to have "less closed views of knowledge than do students in engineering." Students of science and humanities ask questions and are comfortable with answers that are contingent, context-specific and admit of ambivalence. Engineers rely strongly on answers that are precise, sharp, and known. They are attracted to "corporatist, mechanistic and hierarchical" visions of society and prefer well-regulated daily routines. All of this comprises a preference for cognitive closure.
Where does this leave us?
Based on the findings of the Gambetta-Hertog book, one could argue that there is some connection between violent extremism and higher education but it arises from pre-existing personality traits. It is not engineering that creates radicals but certain personality traits that guide students into certain disciplines that then reinforce those traits.
Where do these traits come from? Some may be genetic. Some may be formed in environments such as homes and communities and high schools. In this framework, universities are a station through which such individuals pass, a place of transit and not of origin.