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10 February 2016

Pakistani universities must fight in the battle of ideas

The attack by the Pakistani Taliban on the Bacha Khan University at Charsadda on 20 January is an appalling reminder of external threats to the country's campuses. But there are also internal threats-overt, covert, a few already fatal, several ominous-that threaten freedom of academic inquiry and intellectual exploration in Pakistan's higher education institutions.

Such threats are presently limited in scale. But if they are left unchallenged, they could turn universities into places where minds are suffocated and ideas perish.

Pakistan, the world's second-largest predominantly Muslim country, excels in paradoxes. It is ranked 146 out of 187 countries on the UN's Human Development Index, but since the turn of the millennium the country has broken the record for the world's youngest Microsoft Certified Professional at least three times. The present record-holder, Ayan Qureshi, who is now a British Pakistani, achieved this distinction in 2014 aged 5 years and 11 months. In 2015, Pakistan was the first country outside Europe to become an associate member of the European particle physics laboratory Cern. About 20 years earlier, the immense shields for Cern's Large Hadron Collider were built by a company based in Taxila, near Islamabad.

At 58 per cent, the literacy rate in Pakistan is markedly lower than other nations such as Egypt at 75 per cent, Iran at 82 per cent, Turkey at 98 per cent and Indonesia at 93 per cent. Many young people are still not in school and for those who are the drop-out rates are higher than one would wish. Even so, in recent decades, the emergence of a large middle class and a growing urban population-Pakistan is the most urbanised country in South Asia-have fuelled demand for education at all levels.

Two striking trends are the increasing visibility of higher education in provincial towns and cities away from the main metropolitan centres, and the increasing number of female students taking courses in business and media studies, medicine, natural and social sciences, and information technology.

The size, diversity and geographical spread of Pakistani universities give the system some robustness against malign cultural trends. But despite this, universities have not been immune to the creeping religiosity and conspicuous piety that were instigated in the 1980s by the military government of Muhammad Zia-ul Haq and have spread like an infection ever since.

Whenever I visit my alma mater, the University of Karachi, I am struck by the profusion of beards, hijabs and burqas in comparison with my own student days in the mid-1960s. On one level, this is an understandable response to the bewildering pace of technological and cultural change. And to be fair, when speaking on the campus, I have never faced a hostile reaction. Others and myself have candidly condemned religious extremism. There, and nearby, there are centres of specialised study that encourage fairly frank debate and discourse. And at campuses across the country, courses on subjects such as physics, business studies, engineering and IT are not restricted by orthodoxy.
So can the medieval and the modern co-exist? They can, up to a point.

In 2014 and 2015, two University of Karachi academics were assassinated. One, Shakeel Auj, was dean of the faculty of Islamic Studies; the other, Waheed ur Rehman, was an assistant professor in mass communication. Both were said to hold progressive views, which may have led to their murder by extremists. Their killers have not yet been found, and may be walking around the campus every day. A graduate of a neighbouring institution is also accused of killing the courageous peace activist Sabeen Mahmood and of participating in a communal massacre.

All societies and states, and even universities, have sacred cows of varying kinds. In Pakistan, some of these sacred cows have become heavily armed stalking beasts. It would not be surprising if this prompted academics into deliberate, if unacknowledged, self-restraint in intellectual inquiry. This would be understandable as a survival measure, but self-censorship and the reluctance to roam beyond the acceptable horizon will eventually curb research. Pakistani universities cannot allow the reflexive resort to seeking an explanation for all phenomena within a religious perspective alone to take hold.

The fight against terrorism is not just a matter for Pakistan's armed forces. Thousands of civilians, including students and teachers, have taken up the cause; many have already been injured or killed. But the military struggle will not succeed unless the battle of ideas is won. And in this battle, university leaders and administrators need to show more grit in confronting the enemy within. More to say? Email

Written on the invitation of the Editor, Research, London, a leading global journal, and as published on 10 February 2016.