The poem and essay competition at the prestigious Punjab University shows the footholds of hard-line Islamists on college campuses and growing efforts to raise their profile and influence even in the relatively cosmopolitan atmosphere of Pakistan’s culture capital, Lahore.
The contest’s organizers have kept their identities hidden. But many students and teachers suspect it is being held by a powerful Islamist student group that has increasingly enforced its conservative religious views on the rest of the campus – sometimes violently.
The Islami Jamiat Talaba, which is connected to Pakistan’s largest Islamist party, has denied involvement, saying it doesn’t participate in secret activities. But its leaders have publicly acknowledged that many members support bin Laden and have a profound hatred for the US
The group’s rising ambitions have intensified fears about the radicalization of Pakistan’s educated middle classes, who make up a large part of the public university’s population. The educated classes have been seen as a bulwark against militant groups such as the Taliban in the nuclear-armed country.
The ability of Islami Jamiat Talaba, or Islamic Student Group, to gain ground on the university – even though many students reject its radical views – also reflects a general unwillingness of Pakistani authorities to challenge the powerful Islamist forces.
“Whoever is America’s friend is a traitor!” roared the head of the student group, Zubair Safdar, in an interview with The Associated Press.