Nelson warned that this was a somewhat myopic mode of understanding the thorny phenomenon of religious extremism in these countries, because his research (of various private and public-sector universities of Pakistan and Bangladesh), had produced certain findings, signifying that those trying to comprehend the issue of religious extremism might be being a tad too simplistic in their approach.
Though agreeing that many madressahs in Pakistan and Bangladesh (ever since the 1980s) have played a role in molding militant mindsets, Nelson’s research concluded that the understanding needed to be stretched beyond the confines of madressahs.
Today, as Pakistan stands reeling from the shock of watching perfectly ‘normal’ and educated middle-class students and professionals being arrested for their alleged involvement in a number of gruesome acts of terror (in the name of faith), Nelson, in his 2009 paper, was advising experts to turn their attention towards this segment of society.
Then, the mushrooming of private universities undermined the importance public-sector universities had once enjoyed. The private universities kept conventional student outfits out. But, as Nelson observes, the administrations of most of these universities did not discourage the entry of religious groups who were (till the 1990s) completely absent from public-sector campuses.
The new groups were largely evangelical in nature. When in 2008, I was conducting research (for a paper on the historical evolution of student politics in Pakistan), I heard various lecturers and administrators of private universities in Karachi and Lahore suggest that the evangelical groups were apolitical and good for the ‘spiritual nourishment’ of the students.
It cannot be out-rightly proposed that the presence on campuses of such evangelical groups is the main reason behind the conservative nature of the two post-90s’ generations of Pakistani college and university students.
But when this presence is coupled with the proliferation of the myopic ideological narrative developed by the state (from the late 1970s onwards), along with the constant attacks ideas such as democracy face in the populist media, it becomes easier to figure out just why the last two generations of college and university students in Pakistan have been so conservative.
The blurring of the line that separates evangelical groups from the more clandestine and violent ones. Nelson’s concern was that universities in this region just might end up becoming recruiting grounds for those bent on committing and facilitating violence in the name of faith. He observed that they might be looking for young men and women who were a far cry from the archetypal madressah students.
Nelson concluded that the rise of extremism (in South Asia) should now be understood as something that has gone ‘beyond the madressah’. He insisted that the conventional idea which stated that acts of religious terror are only extensions of economic deprivation, should now take second place. The focus should be on the more problematic phenomenon of well-to-do, urban middle-classes being radicalised by environments constructed by the administrations of universities who are (willingly or otherwise) unable to comprehend that the evangelical groups just might be generating more notorious byproducts.
Ironically, these environments were proudly created (by facilitating evangelical groups) as a way to keep away the violence of conventional student politics. But as we have now seen, this environment has uncannily begun to produce violence of a completely different, and even more worrisome, nature.
It is blurring the line between demonstrations of piety and sheer terror by men and women who are supposed to be seen as sophisticated models of intellectual enlightenment, ideological refinement and professional success.
By Nadeem F Paracha [ Extracts from http://www.dawn.com/news/1228719 ]