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The Driving Force behind Terrorism Is Not a Lack of Education — It Is Something Far Broader and More Difficult To Constrain



By Anam Khan

July 23, 2015

Arguments in the past have claimed that education can defeat terrorism — this is not the case anymore.

On July 16, 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez went on a shooting spree in Chattanooga, Tennessee, attacking two military facilities and killing four marines. Abdulazeez had received an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee. He, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be educated.

On April 2015, Saad Aziz shot and killed human-rights activist Sabeen Mahmud. Her death was a tragic loss for Pakistan, a country that finds hope in people like Mahmud. She was bright, brave and progressive enough to not only challenge stifling extremist beliefs, but also spark debates about highly controversial undertakings spearheaded by powerful authoritative figures. Saad told the police that he shot Mahmud for holding a Valentine’s Day rally and campaigning against the Lal Masjid cleric. He also confessed to killing at least seven members of the Ismaili community in the Safoora Goth bus carnage. Saad had studied at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi. Before that, he attended the Beacon house School System and completed his ‘A levels’ at The Lyceum, one of Karachi’s elite private schools. It makes sense to claim that Saad’s soul internally combusted despite the education he received throughout his youth.

What is the root cause of terrorist violence? What makes someone disturbingly eager to orchestrate merciless rampages? Both Abdulazeez and Saad had been described as ‘normal’ kids before they plummeted into a wave of darkness.

Saad reportedly received special training for the style of executions he carried out in Safoora Goth. In his case, it appears as if a pervading extremist ideology somehow managed to infiltrate his conscience. This comes as no surprise when men like Maulana Abdul Aziz, the hate-spewing Lal Masjid cleric, are allowed to roam free regardless of the numerous (and at this point, rather useless) arrest warrants that have been issued against them. Abdul Aziz is allegedly a staunch and largely vocal supporter of terrorist groups in Pakistan. This is not to say that Abdul Aziz was responsible for corrupting Saad. The point is that radical religious views that misconstrue the true essence of Islam are being allowed to spread uncontrollably. These ideologies need to be confronted since they lay the foundation for terrorist activity in the country. Saad also lives in an environment where attacks on law enforcers, religious scholars, politicians and minority groups have become a painful norm, giving him reason to believe that he will escape unscathed after perpetrating a heinous crime.

As for Abdulazeez, his motives for opening fire at the military facilities remain unconfirmed. Investigators recently uncovered a journal in which he expresses anti-American sentiments. He also conveys a disturbing eagerness to commit suicide and become a martyr. His family claims that he suffered from depression and was abusing drugs for some time. He reportedly also had a hard time keeping a job due to his manic-depressive disorder and drug use. Again, it is too soon for me to outline exactly why he attacked the military facilities. His family, however, claims that he found a way to express his pain by turning to violence. Their attempt to use depression as a means to explain Abdulazeez’s behaviour could be a coping mechanism, which is natural and understandable considering their state of shock. This episode, aside from the mixed information available, still shows that a lack of education is not necessarily a factor that enflames terrorism.

The driving force behind terrorism is not a lack of education — it is something far broader and more difficult to constrain, let alone pinpoint.

Anam Khan is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Communication Practice at Columbia University.