Pakistan's Educated Jihadis

05/21/2015 03:46 am ET | Updated May 20, 2016

Can you imagine how Mamnoon Hussain, Pakistan's current president, Shaukat Aziz, the former prime minister or Dr. Ishrat Hussain, the ex-governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, had reacted to the startling news on Wednesday that a young graduate of their alma mater, the prestigious Karachi-based Institute of Business Administration (IBA), had masterminded the assassination of Sabeen Mahmud, a prominent female liberal activist? When Syed Qaim Ali Shah, the chief minister of the Sindh province, revealed the identities of at least four terror suspects who are believed to be involved in the recent killing of 47 members of the Ismaili community, he was actually informing us about a chilling pattern among the jihadist groups in Pakistan: the radicalization, and subsequently, the induction, of well-educated students from the elite schools.

Why would a graduate from the country's best business school, which has produced a president and a prime minister for Pakistan, become a terrorist? This should not completely shock us. It should instead redirect our attention toward one aspect of the jihadist movements that the government officials, policymakers and academics do not normally talk about. The conventional wisdom suggests that poverty, illiteracy, underdevelopment and negligence breed terrorism. We have also been repeatedly trained to visualize an Islamic extremist as a bearded man who is dressed in the traditional attire with a cap on his head, and he almost always comes from a small, remote mountainous town. That is not always true. You can belong to a rich family, attain the best education that money can buy, speak fluent English, spend time on the internet and still end up as a religious fanatic.

Pakistan is certainly not the only country where wealthy and well-educated young people are being attracted to violent extremist movements. With the dramatic rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), experts estimate that over 6,000 European and around 150 Americans nationals have joined, or at least attempted to join, the terrorist group. This spurns the simplistic assumption that only the poor and illiterate can be indoctrinated to join violent jihadist movements. While the western countries can no longer ignore the threat of homegrown terrorism and possible collaboration between their citizens and the foreign terrorists, they at least have the resources and the infrastructure to grapple with this challenge at the nascent level before it grows much bigger and poses a more serious threat to the western societies. Pakistan is clearly not a developed western nation. It has shown no signs of winning its fight against radical Islam and now the expansion of the Jihadist mindset to the elite educational institutions only deepens the existing crisis of religious radicalization.

In fact, some of the most high profile Pakistani jihadists received education from the renowned western institutions. For example, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British-Pakistani terrorist sentenced to death for his involvement in the 2002 kidnapping and the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, attended the London School of Economics. Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, an Al-Qaeda courier and financer who was sentenced to 86 years in prison in 2010 for two accounts for attempted murder, obtained a BS in biology in 1995 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 2001. Faisal Shahzad, the mastermind of the 2010 failed car bomb blast at New York's Time Square, grew up rich at the house of a retired senior Pakistan Air Force official. He earned an MBA from the University of Bridgeport.

The educated Jihadis are much harder to suspect or identify. They certainly have more access to financial and technical resources and face fewer challenges in traveling internationally. These advantages make them more dangerous than the usual suspects that normally come from poor backgrounds or the religious schools. In addition, the well-educated men and women with a jihadist mindset and zealous violent ambitions even become more lethal when their degrees from prestigious universities lead them to influential jobs at the government and private institutions. That's where they begin to build and enhance institutional support for their radical causes.

When we had warned the Pakistani government to refrain from jumping into immediate conclusions by blaming foreign countries for the terrorist attacks, elements in the government continued to rule out the possibility of homegrown terrorists. Now, Mr. Shah, the Sindh chief minister, is agreeing with us that these terrorists are actually Pakistani children. There is no shortcut to fight the menace of religious extremism in Pakistan. The government should initiate and lead reforms that promote liberal education and weaken the influence of religion from the country's politics, institutions and the society. This is not going to be an easy task, but it is foolish to handover a full country to a bunch of agitated religious fanatics who want to forcefully impose their world vision on the rest of the population. The state should not complain against them if it does not move against the extremists in the first place.

In order to gauge the intensity of resistance that will be offered to the government, provided that it takes measures to fight violent extremism from the country in general, and at the educational institutions in particular, we need to take a look at the frantic protests from religious parties against Pervaiz Rasheed, the country's information minister. The minister had recently criticized the role of the religious schools and regretted their lack of productivity in adding value to the country's development. These religious schools, also known as Madrassas, have also been repeatedly called as jihad factories. However, the unrepentant clergymen are not willing to accept any criticism on these seminaries. In reaction to the minister's comments, they have come hard in public calling him a heretic, a charge that could easily incite an enraged mob to kill the minister. When the prayer leaders made similar charges against Salmaan Taseer, the liberal governor of the Punjab province, his own security guard shot him dead.

Imagine if the religious fanatics are so powerful and free to call for the death of a powerful government minister for criticizing the role of religious schools and their leaders, what is the level of protection an ordinary citizen, scholar and academic has while attempting to question the existing national narrative? One reason to understand why a student from a top business school like IBA ends up as a terrorist is the absence of academic freedom inside Pakistan's colleges and universities. These institutions have become places where humans are trained to become robots that learn how to treat patients, build bridges and start a business. What these institutions do not teach is critical thinking, nor do they encourage open debate on controversial topics such as the role of religion and the authenticity of the history taught to them. When children are discouraged to raise questions or think freely and differently, the product that comes out of a small religious school or an elite business college will remain the same.