Peshawar attack spreads fear in higher education

Schools and universities in Pakistan closed early and delayed their reopening until this week over security fears after the Taliban attack on a Peshawar school on 16 December, with many remaining closed until mid-January. But students and academics are questioning whether they will be any safer when they open.

A number of higher education institutions as well as schools were abruptly closed on 19 December after security officials said some institutions were on terrorists’ hit lists.

Pakistan Taliban spokesman, Muhammad Umar Khorasani, warning of more attacks, said the Taliban had attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar, capital of the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province "because the government is targeting our families and females".

He was referring to the ongoing army operation in North Waziristan and neighbouring areas.

The Punjab provincial government extended the vacation for state-run schools and universities by almost two weeks until at least 9 January, in the wake of the attack in which some 136 children and 13 adults were killed, in the worst attack on an educational institution in Pakistan for several years. Some other university administrations took a cautious approach and extended the break.

Some well known institutions like the Aitchison College, Forman Christian College University and Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore; the Quaid-e-Azam College, National University of Modern Languages or NUML, International Islamic University Islamabad or IIUI, National University of Science and Technology or NUST and the Bahria University decided to follow suit, as well as all the public schools and colleges in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

Like many students facing exam disruption, Abbas Ali Lotia, 22, is “annoyed” at the inconvenience and says he does not understand how his university will suddenly be "safer" after the winter break.

The final-year law student from the southern port city of Karachi is studying at Lahore University of Management Sciences or LUMS, in Punjab province.

Exam disruption

“We were all prepared for sitting for the exams on 20 December,” said Lotia. But on 18 December students received an email from the school administration saying the winter break would commence on 19 December due to the ‘ongoing security situation’.

The note said final examinations for the Fall 2014 semester would be held between 10 and 17 January, followed a week later by the spring break on 26 January.

Lotia and his classmates are trying to persuade teachers to let them take exams online from home to reduce disruption.

“I would have to go to Lahore otherwise to sit just two papers and then have two weeks' break again before the next semester starts,” he said, adding that he did not want to stay on campus as all his friends would be leaving during the enforced break.

Unlike in 2009, after a bomb attack on the police headquarters in Lahore, when LUMS student hostels were immediately evacuated, students this time were able to stay on, although the school administration said it did not recommend that, Lotia said.

Attacks and threats

The Taliban have repeatedly attacked schools they say are imparting western-style education.

According to Education under Attack 2014, a global study by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, or GCPEA – which includes the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, Education Above All, Human Rights Watch, Save the Children, Scholars at Risk, UNESCO, UNHCR and UNICEF among its members – at least 838 schools from Pakistan were attacked, mostly bombed, by militant groups between 2008 and 2012. There were also targeted killings of teachers and academics.

Most of these attacks were carried out when schools were closed.

But in 2009, in a departure from attacking schools, the Taliban launched a double suicide bombing against the International Islamic University Islamabad, which prides itself on combining ‘the essentials of the Islamic faith with the best of modern knowledge’, according to its website.

Militant attacks on education institutions continued into 2013, GCPEA reported. For example, an explosion on a school bus at the campus of the Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University in Quetta in 2013 killed 14 female students and wounded up to 19 more.

Ninety minutes later 11 people died in a blast aimed at the medical centre where the survivors had been taken for treatment.

While the colleges and schools faced imminent threat in the Punjab after last month’s school attack, according to security officials, schools and colleges in Karachi also closed earlier than usual.

“We checked with the Citizen Police Liaison Cell and were told there was no such threat here that they knew of for institutions in Karachi,” said Talib Karim, rector of the Institute of Business Management.

“All schools were supposed to open on 2 January, but a notification from the government extended it to 12 January. It is not binding on us, but we are following the directive. God forbid if anything happens, the government can always turn around with a ‘we told you so’.”

However, he said the government was looking for an ‘easy way out’ to grapple with the problem of militancy and terrorism by leaving the decision to universities whether to close or not.

Security burden on institutions

“This is really not the solution,” Karim said. “A suicide attack or a bombing by militants can only be pre-empted by good intelligence. This is the job of the state,” he said. “We already have basic security which has been further enhanced and there is more fencing which can act as a deterrent.”

The Peshawar attack resulted in a public outpouring of grief, but Karim says it has also increased the burden on him. Educational institutions once considered safe are looked upon with fear. “We are responsible for hundreds of kids every day, but so helpless in the face of terrorism.”

Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of physics and mathematics at Forman Christian College, Lahore said “closing schools hurts society but it costs nothing for the intelligence agencies to issue an attack warning”.

“To protect schools from terrorists who wield machine guns and carry hand grenades is impossible. Hard targets, such as military bases, have been successfully attacked. How can one hope to protect soft targets like schools?”

Dr AH Nayyar, a physicist and leading voice for reform of education, has written extensively about the pervading Islamic content in school textbooks and warned of radicalisation of impressionable children and young people.

“We are facing absolutely mad people who are ready to kill and ready to die. Exposing children to their murderous attacks should be unacceptable,” Nayyar told University World News.

The only two solutions were to eliminate the terrorists, or ensure educational institutions are well protected. But how well an institution can be protected, or whether all the institutions can be provided such security are difficult questions to answer, he said.

Experts, sadly, are convinced more bloodshed is in the offing. “No one should think that the Peshawar atrocity was the last one because some religious people believe Pakistan needs to be destroyed as a Muslim state and then recreated as an Islamic Sharia state,” warned Hoodbhoy.

“This sentiment lies at the base of religious terrorism and the widespread tolerance for terrorists. Pretending otherwise won't help.”