The philosophical battle for campus security

On Monday 25 January 2016 the battered Bacha Khan University, target of a horrific attack by Taliban militants, opened again for a very short while. The reason was a meeting headed by the vice-chancellor of the university; its grim agenda a review of the security provisions to the campus.

The collective decision that emerged at the end of the meeting was a sad one; the campus was unsafe, there was not enough security to resume classes. Bacha Khan University, where 21 died and 30 were injured the Wednesday before, was shut down indefinitely.

Until they could be assured of security, the university administrators decided, they could not ask traumatised students and professors to come back to campus.

In the aftermath of the sordid attack on the institution – said to be masterminded by the same Taliban leader who conjured up the attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School a little over a year earlier, in December 2014 – focus has been placed on the selection of education institutions as militant targets.

The Pakistani newspaper Dawn (using data from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database) reported that more people (450 in total) died in attacks on schools in Pakistan than in any other country between 1970 and 2014.

Furthermore, in the same period Pakistan suffered the highest number of attacks (850) on education institutions of any country, according to the same database. The Pakistani city of Peshawar, the largest city closest to the tribal areas controlled by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, saw more attacks than any other city in the world.

More than any other region of the world, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province in which the city is located, saw its cities and towns become regular targets of attacks on schools.

The Global Terrorism Database may actually be under-reporting the scale of the problem. Education under Attack 2014, a global study published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack – whose leading members include UNESCO, UNHCR, UNICEF, Education Above All, Human Rights Watch, Save the Children and the Institute of International Education/Scholars at Risk – found that at least 838 attacks on schools had taken place in 2009-12 alone.

None of this is surprising news. Since the terrifying attack on the now Nobel Peace Prize-winning Malala Yousafzai, the Taliban’s predilection for attacking those wanting an education has been well known.

Terrorists like the Taliban focus on soft targets – and schools, along with their crowds of vulnerable children, and universities, with their similar populations of book-toting youths, present just that: easy targets.

Scaling the walls of Bacha Khan University on a foggy morning when a commemoration was being held for a pacifist leader, gunning down students who were looking to participate in a commemoration of peace is a scene woven with blood, gore and irony – just the right recipe for terror.

Decolonisation of the mind

There is, however, more to the selection of schools than just this. From the beginning, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, whose literal meaning is a movement of students, has had a particular epistemological opposition to the kinds of education that they see being taught in Pakistani schools.

Evidence of this can be found in the letter that Taliban spokesperson Adnan Rasheed addressed to Malala Yousafzai in 2013. In relation to education, Rasheed provides a quote of a British colonial administrator named Lord Macaulay during a speech made to the British parliament in February 1835.

Macaulay said: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

The intent of the colonial-inherited education system in Pakistan is to produce a class of servile and subjugated people who are easily pliable to the needs of their colonial masters.

The Taliban’s decolonisation plan hence focuses on eradicating – by killing innocent students – this education system and replacing it with a theological system of education based entirely on the literal sayings of the Holy Quran.

In simple terms, enlightenment values, from an empirically based science to ideas of literature and culture that are not based on theology and a metaphysics centred in theology are all tainted. All of them must be eradicated to enable a purification of the country and to reclaim a pre-colonial and hence authentic form of learning.

Connecting the Taliban’s version of a decolonisation project to their attacks on schools and universities is crucial for two reasons. For one, it underscores that the fight against militancy and the protection of schools is not simply a military battle but also a philosophical one.

Discourses that recognise the ills of colonialism without believing and promoting a concomitant and bloody obscurantism require promotion and elevation. Terror polarises discourse and its consequence in Pakistan has been either the denial of colonial shadows in ideas of learning or, far worse, an anti-intellectualism that comes close to the Taliban’s obscurantism.

Second, it reveals how exclusively military efforts against Taliban militancy are destined to fail, relegated to transient victories until the group’s leadership regroups and begins its onslaught again.

Recognition of these epistemological realities also underscores the need to emphasise and promote initiatives that respond to the militant obscurantism preached by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. One of the most recent and expansive of these is the Muslim Science initiative that is emphasising Islam’s long and pre-colonial genealogy of scientific enquiry.

Consisting of scholars and university administrators from hundreds of universities all over the Muslim world, the initiative creates a genealogy of scientific enquiry that is robust and that counters the premise that scientific enquiry is inherently “un-Islamic” and located in colonial subjugation.

Ultimately, it is initiatives such as these, along with others that embrace decolonisation as an epistemological project crucial to defeating militancy, that can secure campuses like Bacha Khan University and countless others all over the Muslim world that are now targets for the obscurantist cruelty of Taliban assassins.

Rafia Zakaria is Pakistan Country Monitor for Scholars At Risk.