Monday 20 February 2012

Radicalism and Engineers

Professionals form the backbone of a society. Professionals include Doctors, engineers, bankers, businessmen, lawyers, soldiers and law-enforcers. Pakistani society as a whole has been affected by the problem of increasing intolerance and religious extremism over the years. One of the many causes of this rise is the state of textbooks in Pakistan that promote hatred and bigotry(Consider for instance Meri Kitab, which is a required text textbook for grade one students in most public schools. Seven out of 16 chapters in Meri Kitab contained religious sermons. A report by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom found that textbooks were filled with disparaging remarks about the Hindus, while never mentioning that for centuries Muslims and Hindus had lived peacefully in the subcontinent.). Students are taught from a young age to hate perceived enemies. Other causes include the propaganda-mongering by state-backed Madrassas and even state-controlled media, enormous groundwork done by religious groups and exploitation of religious beliefs of people by clergy.

A common belief about terrorists is that only uneducated, unemployed and frustrated people join the ranks of terrorists. Research has proven this wrong and we know today that there are many doctors, engineers and other professionals in the terrorist ranks. The 9/11 conspirators included 8 engineers, Faisal Shehzad, famously known as Times-square bomber is a qualified engineer, Yahya Ayyash from Hamas-an electrical engineer-is credited with advancing the technique of suicide bombing,  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (confessed Al Qaeda operative and engineering student) tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit, Mohammed Abd al-Salam Faraj, leader of the killers of Anwar Sadat, Kafeel Ahmed, who tried to bomb Glasgow Airport in 2007, Anwar al-Awlaki(top Al-Qaeda leader from Yemen famous for his internet sermons), studied engineering as an undergraduate at Colorado State University. In Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed-the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawaa, both on International terror watch list-used to teach at University of Engineering and Technology, Faiz Mohammad, a civil engineer, was caught at Karachi’s airport with batteries and an electrical circuit hidden in his shoes, Asif Mehmood, a chemical engineer from UET, was involved in the 2009 bombing of the ISI office in Lahore.  

Diego Gambetta and Steffen Herog in their research paper titled “Why are there so many Engineers among Islamic Radicals?” note that According to data compiled by Carnegie foundation in 1984, The proportion of engineers who declare themselves to be on the right of the political spectrum is greater than in any other disciplinary group: 57.6 % of them are either conservative or strongly conservative, as compared to 51.1 % of economists, 42.5 % of doctors and 33.5 % of scientists, 21.4 % of those in the humanities, and 18.6 % of the social scientists. The Carnegie survey reveals an even more surprising fact, hitherto unnoticed, that strengthens the suspicion that the engineers’ mindset may play a part in their proneness not only to radicalize to the right of the political spectrum, but do so with a religious slant: engineers turn out to be by far the most religious group of all academics – 66.5 %, followed again by 61.7 % in economics, 49.9 % in sciences, 48.8 % of social scientists, 46.3 % of doctors and 44.1% of lawyers.” Similarly, Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey in their 2006 study of ‘madrassas (Islamic schools) and lack of education as a putative terrorist incubator’ found that the most popular subjects amongst those jihadi terrorists who attended university was engineering followed by medicine.

Regarding the cause of this dangerous trend among engineers, Awais Masood, an engineer by profession, wrote in the Daily Times, “The relationship between religious fundamentalism and technology has remained complicated. Religious fundamentalist movements have been widely described as reaction to modernity though the movements are themselves modern in nature. Hence there exists an inherent conflict where these movements reject the underlying notions of rationality, secular and scientific constituting modernity. On the other hand, these movements continue to appropriate modern symbols and technology to further their cause. Historically, fundamentalist movements vehemently opposed natural sciences and technology but that does not hold true anymore. As stated in a paper titled ‘Postmodern Conservatism and Religious Fundamentalism’ by Geoff Boucher, the fundamentalist movements of today harbour a selective, instead of a wholesome, hostility towards natural sciences and try to engage in an understanding of the world that remains compatible with the commercialized science of today encompassing applied sciences and technology. Hence, these movements hold a significant appeal among technical professionals such as engineers, doctors and lawyers. Carrying forward this correlation between technical education and fundamentalism, a 2009 study published in The European Journal of Sociology showed that engineers constitute 20 percent of all Islamist militant organizations, a value remarkably greater than the expected 3.5 percent figure.”

There is also the question as to why people who are supposed to think according to the scientific method adopt the narrow-minded approach of terrorists. According to Professor of Nuclear Physics, Dr. Parvez Hoodbhoy, “We need to separate the scientists from the technologists, meaning those who use science in a narrowly functional sense rather than as a means for understanding the natural world. I have never seen a first-rate Muslim scientist become an Islamist or a terrorist even when he or she is a strong believer. But second- and third-rate technologists are more susceptible. These are people who use science in some capacity but without any need to understand it very much—engineers, doctors, technicians, etc.—all of whom are more inclined towards radicalism. They have been trained to absorb facts without thinking, and this makes them more susceptible to the inducements of holy books and preachers.”

The phenomenon of rising intolerance and fanaticism is not limited to engineers rather it has encapsulated our society in general. The most worrying aspect about this issue is the lack of awareness regarding it. As a society, we fall upon excuses to somehow justify terrorism due to clever usage of religious symbolism attached to it, despite losing more than 35 thousand innocent lives due to terrorist activities. Veteran Journalist Khaled Ahmed recently commented that “Pakistan is sinking because it doesn’t want to look terrorism in the eye”.
Very little is being written against radicalization in mainstream newspapers particularly Urdu newspapers. Ratings-hungry News channels are not devoting any time to raise awareness about the radical ideology. Government is not spending enough resources to counter the tide of fanaticism. The problem starts with the textbooks and is augmented by societal pressures and a criminal lack of focus on critical thinking. A combined effort by the government, civil society and media is required to halt the onslaught of radicalism and to ensure a better, a safer future for this country. It should also be mentioned that by not speaking up, we are colluding with the enemy.

 (also published at Pak Tea house)

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