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Islamist student group said to terrorize Pakistan campuses

In Pakistan's Punjab province, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of a powerful hard-line religious party, seeks to enforce its fundamentalist agenda, intimidating and sometimes attacking students and teachers alike.

July 22, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Asif Mahmood Qureshi, principal of Government Islamia College in Lahore, has been unable to rein in Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, which he says runs a parallel administration.
Asif Mahmood Qureshi, principal of Government Islamia College in Lahore,… (Nadeem Ijaz / For The Times )

Reporting from Lahore, Pakistan — After philosophy students and faculty members rallied to denounce heavy-handed efforts to separate male and female students, Islamists on campus struck back: In the dead of night, witnesses say, the radicals showed up at a men's dormitory armed with wooden sticks and bicycle chains.

They burst into dorm rooms, attacking philosophy students. One was pistol-whipped and hit on the head with a brick. Gunfire rang out, although no one was injured. Police were called, but nearly a month after the attack, no arrests have been made.

Few on Punjab University's leafy campus, including top administrators, dare to challenge the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, or the IJT, the student wing of one of Pakistan's most powerful hard-line Islamist parties.

At another Lahore campus, the principal disdainfully refers to the Islamists as "a parallel administration."

The organization's clout illustrates the deep roots of Islamist extremism in Pakistani society, an influence that extends beyond radical religious schools and militant strongholds in the volatile tribal belt along the Afghan border.

University administrators fear that the IJT's influence on many campuses will lead to an increase in extremism among the middle class, from which the next generation of Pakistan's leaders will rise.

"These people have connections with jihadi groups, and they are taking hostage our campuses," said Sajid Ali, chairman of Punjab University's philosophy department. "This is a real danger for the future of our country."

Fellow students and teachers regard them as Islamist vigilantes. In addition to trying to separate the sexes, they order shopkeepers not to sell Coca-Cola or Pepsi because they are American brands. When they overhear a cluster of fellow students debating topics, from capitalism to religion, they demand that the discussion stop and threaten violence if it continues.

The recent trouble here at Punjab University started when a posse of IJT members slapped a male philosophy student for talking with a female classmate. Students and faculty members organized a protest rally, which led to the dorm attack on June 26. Shahrukh Rashid, 22, who was among those attacked, said the police have been of little help.

"One of the police inspectors told us, 'Whatever is done is done,' " he said.

University officials say that government leaders in Punjab, the country's wealthiest and most populous province, have allowed the IJT to flourish rather than jeopardize their political alliances with hard-line clerics at the helm of religious parties. Even when students, teachers or university administrators seek criminal charges against IJT members, the police rarely respond.

"If the government wanted to solve the problem here, they could do it overnight," said Asif Mahmood Qureshi, principal of the Government Islamia College, a state university in Lahore, the provincial capital.

IJT members don't allow him access to their dormitory, and physically force students and teachers to join their protests. With support from a bloc of teachers sympathetic to the IJT's cause, they have managed to control the school's teachers union, Qureshi said.

"They don't want the principal to do anything without their consent," said Qureshi, the administrator who referred to the organization as running a parallel administration.

At Punjab University, IJT sympathizers include some teachers and even some of the security guards, teachers and students say.

Ali, the chairman of the philosophy department, said students and teachers in most of the university's academic departments do not resist. The IJT won't allow music classes on campus, Ali said, so the music department's teachers meet their students at a concert hall off campus.

Standing up to the IJT can trigger severe consequences. Last year, an environmental sciences professor, as head of the school's disciplinary committee, expelled several IJT members for unruly behavior. A group of IJT students stormed into his office, beat him with metal rods and smashed a flowerpot over his head. He survived the attack.

When IJT members attacked the philosophy department dorm late last month, the students fought back, chasing the fundamentalists. Within 15 minutes, the IJT youths had fled.

"We've never been cowed by them," Ali said. "So we're on an island at this university."

The IJT's campus leader, Zubair Safdar, acknowledged that some student members went to the philosophy department's dormitory to confront students there, and that fights broke out. The IJT members involved later apologized to the department's students and teachers, Safdar said.

"It was a miscommunication between the IJT students and the philosophy students," he said.

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