When Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai returned to her home country after six years, she received a hero’s welcome: She met with Pakistan’s prime minister and delivered a nationally televised speech.
But not everyone was happy with her return to Pakistan, the first time since a Taliban gunman shot her in the head in 2012.
Posts on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp seemed to reflect the Taliban’s view of Yousafzai.
She was accused of being a CIA agent and of maligning Islam. Her opponents flooded social media with pictures and visuals showing students and teachers at a private school in Lahore chanting slogans, “I am not Malala” with anti-Malala placards in their hands. The protest was organized by a little-known organization called All Punjab Private Schools Association.
WATCH: Teachers, Students in Lahore Chant 'I am not Malala'
What is worrying, experts say, it that the country’s educated youth seem to be echoing the radicalized views of militant groups.
The killing of student Mashal Khan at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan in April 2017 is further evidence of such radicalization, experts say. Khan had been accused of blasphemy over his social media posts. An investigation, however, found him to be innocent.
Muhammad Ismail Khan is a senior project manager at the Islamabad-based think tank Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS). He told VOA that youth radicalization in Pakistan appears to cross all social structures.
“Extremists have attracted young people from rural areas and urban centers, madrassas and even universities, poor and well-off backgrounds, not only men but women, too,” Khan said, quoting the findings from PIPS, which were prepared with leading experts on the subject.
PIPS’ recent study also found “this universal radicalization is evident in the diverse way in which the Islamic State (IS) has been trying to recruit from Pakistan. The group has attracted former Pakistani Taliban militants from the underdeveloped Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that border Afghanistan and where internet penetration is nearly zero, as well as motivated well-off individuals, including women from urban areas like Karachi in Sindh, and Lahore, Sialkot, and Faisalabad in Punjab.”
Historians note that Pakistani youth experienced a dramatic shift in their outlook in the early 1980s when the Soviet forces occupied the neighboring Afghanistan.
College and university students were encouraged to join the resistance against the Soviet occupation of a “brother Muslim country.”
In the 1990s, the state’s narrative promoted armed resistance against the forces in Indian Kashmir.
Experts say that a whole generation of college and university students witnessed the glorification of jihad and it’s not easy to unlearn that.
‘All segments of society’
“There needs to be serious dialogue with youth,” said educator Qamar Cheema of the National University of Modern Languages (NUML). The “state needs to have structural approach with strong national narrative on issues which are crucial for national harmony, deradicalization plans for all segments of society are needed through national educational curriculum, and media debates.”
Recent statistics show that Pakistanis younger than 25 make up more than 60 percent of the country’s total population.
“Challenge of youth radicalization is there, we have to teach our youth in schools, colleges and need to consonantly tell them about the right path,” Lt. Gen. (Retired) Abdul Qayyum, who is a senator and a member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), told VOA.
Realizing the breadth of the problem, the military in May 2017 joined forces with the higher education commission at a seminar titled “The Role of Youth in Rejecting Extremism.” They sought to devise an outline to protect youth from falling to extremist ideologies.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal also said educational institutions would be monitored through National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) to ensure that extremist elements did not misguide the youth. NACTA was formed in 2009 and tasked to formulate a counterterrorism strategy.
But a series of recent incidents point to extremist behaviors in Pakistan.
In January 2018, a private college student killed a principal under suspicion of blasphemy in the Shabqadar area of North West Pakistan.
Student Faheem Shah has attended a rally of religious political party Tehreek-e-Labaik in Islamabad in December 2017 and skipped many classes. But when Shah was confronted by principal Sareer Ahmad over his absences, the student shot Ahmad.
Blasphemy law criticized
“This killing was yet another shameful reminder of how easy it still is to manipulate the existing blasphemy laws to avenge personal grievances,” Dr. Mehdhi Hassan, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told VOA.
Hassan added that the killing of university student Khan by a mob led to countrywide outrage and calls for the blasphemy law to be modified.
He said it seems no lessons are being learned from these incidents and that no apparent actions are being taken by authorities to prevent other incidents from happening.
“These incidents are further confirmation of the slide toward extreme intolerance in societies on the one hand and, on the other hand, the apathy and inability of the authorities to meet the challenges of extremism,” Hassan said, expressing his concerns.
Yousafzai, who was shot by Taliban for her efforts to promote girls education, was greeted with some positive messages as well. Her supporters see her as a symbol of defiance against radicalization and extremism in the country.
VOA’s Deewa Service contributed to this story.