LAHORE, Pakistan — Two months after the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, posters emblazoned with images of the burning World Trade Center towers appeared at the country’s largest university advertising a literary contest to glorify the slain al-Qaida chief.
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 increasingly has 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 U.S.
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.
His views were echoed by 19-year-old student Bismah Khan as she read one of the posters promoting the bin Laden contest. One of three topics for the essay section was: “Osama, a thorn piercing the hearts of infidels.”
The group holding the contest identifies itself only as “Sheik Lovers” — a reference to bin Laden, who’s often called the “Sheik” — and provided an email address for contestants to submit their entries by June 30. Attempts by the AP to contact organizers by email went unanswered, and it’s unclear what kind of prizes would go to the winners.
Many students said they opposed the contest, reflecting the low support for bin Laden, al-Qaida and militant groups across the nation. “The killer of humanity cannot be a great person,” said student Ali Akbar.
A survey taken after bin Laden’s death by the Washington-based Pew Research Center showed that 12 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable view of al-Qaida. But only 10 percent approve of the U.S. Navy SEAL operation that killed him May 2 not far from Islamabad. The raid humiliated Pakistan because the government was not told about it beforehand.
The survey of some 1,251 Pakistanis had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
“Vice and Virtue” squads
Expressing opinions freely can be dangerous business at Punjab University, which has an enrollment of roughly 30,000, because of the risk that members of Islami Jamiat Talaba will deem them against Islam, said students and teachers.
The group has effectively seized control of running the dormitories and sends groups of men across campus to enforce its strict brand of Islam: music is forbidden and men and women are not allowed to sit together outside class. It also discourages the formation of rival student groups.
“Their idols are people like Osama bin Laden and [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar,” said Sajid Ali, the head of the university’s philosophy department.
One of these “Vice and Virtue” squads last week beat up a philosophy student who was sitting with a female classmate, said Safdar, head of the student group and university spokesman Khurram Shahzad. Teachers who cross the group also have allegedly been targeted.
“The university is not a date point,” said Safdar. “If boys and girls walk holding hands, sit together back to back or lay on the lawn, this is not Islamic culture.”
Some of the philosophy students, mainly girls, staged a protest after the beating, shouting “Go Jamiat Go!” and “Shame Jamiat Shame!” But several members of the group appeared and pushed away the protesters.
Attempts by the administration to rein in the group have been stymied by the influence of its parent organization, the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which many politicians rely on for votes, teachers said.