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.
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.
Safdar, however, denied that the IJT relies on violence to get its message across. Seated at his desk in a small office at a dormitory dominated by IJT members, the 27-year-old sociology student said his organization is opposed to male and female students sitting together because “the university is not a date point, it’s a place of education.”
He also denied that IJT members rough up male students who resist. “We just talk to them,” he said. “We are trying to create an environment that puts students on the right path. We don’t forcibly push students onto that path.”
At Government Islamia College, Qureshi paints a portrait of a school under siege. Last year, IJT members staged 33 protests in six months, often threatening to beat students and teachers if they didn’t join the rallies. The demonstrations created major disruptions in the college’s routine; many students refused to show up to classes for two or three days after a protest because they feared that the IJT would instigate more violence.
Qureshi says he lacks the means to fight back. The power to suspend or expel students lies with the college’s board of governors, which hasn’t convened since January because of a pending lawsuit filed by IJT students challenging the board’s authority. His attempts to get Punjab provincial education officials to clamp down on IJT behavior have been ignored.
In January, IJT members smashed the windshield and windows of Qureshi’s 1990 Nissan and broke down the front door of his office. He met with Punjab province’s education secretary and asked him to intervene.
“I explained what happened, but all I got from him was silence,” Qureshi said.
The IJT’s logo, a blue shield with a star and crescent moon, is plastered all over campus: on walls, lampposts and the school’s main gate. On the perimeter walls, IJT graffiti declare that “Martyrdom is our desire, and jihad is our way. Islam revolution is our destination. So join us.”
Qureshi can’t keep the group’s images out of even his own office. Affixed to a file cabinet behind his desk and a nearby bookshelf are IJT stickers. Asked why he doesn’t peel them off, Qureshi laughs nervously. “I have control, but not so much.”