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Ultra-Radical Islamists Recruiting At Afghan Universities

FILE: University students protest against the Elimination of Violence against Women law in Kabul in May 2013.
FILE: University students protest against the Elimination of Violence against Women law in Kabul in May 2013.

KABUL/HERAT -- Basira Akhtar, a student at Kabul University, Afghanistan’s largest and oldest public university, says she is a victim of the rising extremism at her institution.

The 22-year-old fourth-year student at the university’s law faculty says she has been beaten twice this year after her chador, a customary headscarf, slipped from her head.

“In April, a group [of students] beat me. They accused me of promoting Christianity because my chador slipped [from my head while walking on campus],” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “In May, a group attacked me with wooden sticks. [They shouted,] ‘This is an Islamic country ... we will make her a Muslim and teach her a lesson.’”

Akhtar says the issue of extremism is acute at Kabul University, where the number of ultra-radicals has grown quickly while authorities pay little attention.

She says her Islamic Studies professor has openly ranted against co-education. “Extremism is not limited to just a few professors and several faculties,” she noted. “It encompasses the entire university.”

Akhtar’s ordeal, academics and officials say, is the tip of the iceberg as a range of hard-line Islamist groups including the ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) are attempting to recruit on Afghan university campuses to turn the seats of higher learning into sanctuaries and breeding grounds for their violent campaigns and revolutionary ideologies.

The issue poses a threat at a sensitive time because as Kabul hopes for a possible peace deal with the hard-line Taliban Islamist movement, the emergence or strengthening of new radical groups could contribute to instability and threaten the future peace even after the Taliban conclude a peace deal with the government.

Earlier this month, Afghan authorities claimed to have busted an IS ring by arresting four people in Kabul. These included a Kabul university lecturer and three graduates of the Islamic Studies faculty where he taught. Police in Kabul charged them with three major attacks in Kabul during the past two years.

Mubashir Muslimyar, the lecturer, and his former students are being held in high-security detention beyond the reach of media. But this is not the first time that Afghan authorities have claimed to arrest alleged IS operatives from Afghan campuses.

Last month, another Kabul University lecturer was reportedly taken into custody on similar charges. In the past, the university in the eastern city of Jalalabad, formally called Nangarhar University, has emerged as a major recruiting ground for IS because of the periodic arrests of IS members or recruiters from its campus. IS still controls pockets of remote territories in the eastern Nangarhar Province, where Jalalabad is the capital.

A recent study by the independent Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS), a local think tank, highlighted the growing trend of religious radicalism on Afghan campuses. The study, called Religious Radicalism in the Higher Education of Afghanistan, found that some 34 percent of respondents to its survey supported a democratic system compared with 51 percent who backed the Islamic Emirate, the formal name of the Afghan Taliban, or preferred an Islamic caliphate as an ideal system of governance.

Abdul Wahab Siddiqi, a journalism professor at the University of Herat in the western Afghan city of Herat, says some campuses are witnessing a proliferation of Islamist movements ultimately aiming to bring down Afghanistan’s current Western-backed, democratic political system.

He told Radio Free Afghanistan that he was invited to formally join Hizb-ut Tahrir, a global Islamist movement whose avowed aim is to revive the Islamic caliphate by eliminating the current nation states.

“They were trying to justify overthrowing the current [Islamic] Republic of Afghanistan and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in its stead through religious texts,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “[The texts] argued that Afghanistan is an occupied country and that we should assemble forces for jihad and resistance.”

At Kabul University, Chancellor Hamidullah Farooqi recently noted that the institution “cannot remain immune to what is going on in society.” However, he vowed to protect Kabul University. “As a responsible institution, we would not allow any activities that are against the law and pose a threat to society,” he told a campus meeting, according to University World News.

Afghanistan’s modern Islamist movement emerged from Kabul University’s Shari’ah Faculty in the 1960s and ’70s. The country’s seats of higher education were also central to the leftist movements.

Afghan Second Vice President Sarwar Danish recently declared radicalization on campuses to be a major emerging threat.

“If extremist ideologies and political confrontation replace research and knowledge on our campuses, our country will again descend into chaos,” he told students and academics at Kabul University earlier this month.

Habibur Rahman Noori, a graduate of the law faculty at Kabul University, agrees. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that some of their teachers used to provoke them against the current Afghan government by arguing that it was un-Islamic and a corrupt system.

“Such ideas are deadly,” he noted. “If they persist, it is possible that many young people will follow them.”

Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Shahpoor Saber in Herat, Nusrat Parsa in Kabul, and Mustafa Sarwar in Prague.