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Abdullah — A School-Friend I Lost to ISIS

Muhammad Abdullah Cheema -- a man I hated with all my heart throughout the first year of our acquaintance, which little did I know was to turn into a short, heart-breakingly memorable friendship.

Abdullah was my dorm-commander, a year senior to me his designation made him responsible to keep a disciplinary check on our entry. He was the strictest of them all -- physically punishing us till late at night, even till 2AM, throughout the scorching summer afternoons, my remorse never saw him as more than a dorm-commander (and understandably so). It was only after a year when I myself got promoted and became a dorm commander is when I realised being a strict disciplinarian was the only way to work within that system of a cadet college.


And that's when my reflection allowed me to remember all the small events and bits of his personality that I was blinded to. Abdullah was very fond of Urdu literature, after we all went to bed at lights out, he'd sneak out to read his favorite Urdu mysticism novels -- Ashfaq Ahmed and Mumtaz Mufti were his favorites, always found scattered around his table. After I entered my second year of schooling, an unlikely bond of friendship started to form over our mutual love of literature and mysticism. We'd talk endlessly about Sufism, metaphysics, divinity and so on. After a year of very close brotherly companionship, events unfolded that little did we both know were going to turn our entire lives upside down.


One random day, Abdullah fell sick and was admitted at the school's hospital. I went there with his favorite snacks to cheer him up. Soon after I left, as narrated by him -- a couple of other friends of his walked in and they all thought of watching a movie on the hospital's common room. It was late at night by then and the common room was closed. So being the rowdy kids that we all were, he and his friends ended up picking the lock to the common room and sneaked inside, without alerting the hospital attendant. Once inside, Abdullah carefully pulled out a USB that had an SRK movie downloaded into it and plugged it in. Now, here I must inform you all that keeping an unregistered USB drive was a big illegal offence in our school, and could lead you to get fined for more than 20,000 ruppees. Halfway through the movie, the warden got suspicious and tried to barge into the common room. Upon realising that all of these boys, including Abdullah tried escaping from the room's windows, which they did succeed with. Only at that moment, Abdullah realised that his USB with most of his personal identification data had been left plugged into the TV. He hurriedly came back inside, and tried pulling it out but the drive didn't budge and got stuck. Abdullah came from a lower-middle class family, he couldn't risk slapping his parents with a 20K fine when they were already living hand to mouth and he was on a full merit scholarship. So he did the unthinkable, he took the whole TV and threw it outside the door in the garbage dump and escaped.


Long story short, CCTV cameras caught the whole ordeal and all of those boys, including Abdullah, were expelled overnight.


This event shifted something inside Abdullah. While we still kept in touch after he moved on and left, I could tell that he had a burning resentment against the system that hadn't empathised with his condition and made life hell for him. His parents, since they couldn't afford good schooling, sent him to work a menial job in Dubai. He was so disheartened and depressed that he left after a year and came back to join a madrassah and a masjid as a Qari and Imam. Less than a year later, he was dead.


His resentment for his own actions, for the schooling system that he had given so much to and yet still had failed him, made him remorseful and most importantly, guilty, to no return. In his efforts to disappear and channel that rage, he got recruited into ISIS and was killed during the Western Ninevah offensive in Mosul, Iraq in 2017.


I often think about him -- searching for answers, for why he did what he did. And what could have been done better so that he could have been alive today, still sharing snippets of his favorite Mumtaz Mufti or Bano Qudsia quotes with me.


Most of the people who know him, blame him only for his actions. And perhaps maybe even rightly so. He chose to take the path he did, himself after all. I could come up and talk about how the school, knowing his background could have chosen to act differently and shown some compassion. But bygones are bygones, especially when it's someone's personal life. But if anything, what this reminds me of, at least right now, is how much of a lifeline a form of community in schooling can be. We shape our ambitions, our ideologies, our support-systems, accordingly. Once Abdullah was deprived of that community, he lost direction. In a world where he was already struggling to survive and curate a good future for himself, There's the question of education within conflict, but there's also the very important question of education as orientation to work for non-conflict. Abdullah is the story of many. And there's all the more need that we take actions that it never happens again, be it even looking at the most trivial of triggering incidents.

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Thats a very tragic story.


There are many such tragic stories all over Pakistan where troubled individuals are exploited and brainwashed by religious extremists. One of my best friends for 8 years who faced alot of challenges in school including bullying and being a under achiever got involved in these groups. He is still alive but doesn't talk to me or sit with me. Goes as far as to call me 'kafir' and that I am a bad influence for him in the same way shaitaan is. These individuals are generally targeted during their education and goverment should make sure that academic institutions are cleansed of people like this.

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Zain, this was such a moving story. As someone who attended a military boarding school of the same kind, this story felt kind of personal. I am aware of how strict the cadet college administration can be when it comes to discipline. And even though I understand of how the administration could have prevented this tragedy had they imposed a less severe punishment on Abdullah, but then again, i am not entire aure if it is the college administration‘s fault, solely. His resentment towards the institution is totally justified, but not to a point where he had to join a terrorist organisation. I am cannot decide if this was the cruel decision of fate, the lack of empathy from the…


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I agree with you, and I too do not believe that it is entirely the college administration's fault. Certainly a lot of factors played a role in how his life turned out to be and perhaps he himself played the biggest role of them all. In fact, I and I know you too, know of so many students, even under-privileged ones, who were expelled but still ended up making a life for themselves. My point is just that a thorough consideration of the administrative culture should also be in effect whenever talks of education reforms emerge, with as Sir Hasham said, strict laws implemented which work justly and equitably in all contexts whatsoever.


As to your question, I do think…

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A beautifully tragic story!

I do believe to some extent every man is responsible for his actions. We choose the path we take, but its important to talk about the factors that limits our course of journey, prompts us to take certain actions or sometimes only leaves doors open to certain paths. There have been multiple stories of educational institutions being indirectly involved with depression and suicides among young people. While, institutions hold the power to shape lives, harsh decisions taken on their part also has the power to end them.

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Agreed -- even in an individualistic perspective, levels of blames could be discussed, but that only serves to lesser focus on the structural and systematic problems that act as drivers in these contexts. And yes indeed, it's alarming how universities have repeatedly sought punitive action that has endangered and negatively affected the lives of so many. Such strong power in the hands of institutions with zero oversight are a big hurdle in educational reform. And I think it is only after a broad set of laws are enacted (acts against corporal punishments are one example) along with a stronger oversight that holds the institutions responsible as well is the only way forward through which we can ensure that institutions serve…

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Zain, you bring up an important topic. As we have seen in many instances throughout this course, a school's environment not only aids students in learning information and important skills like critical thinking but also in assisting them in avoiding conflict-related situations. I believe that schools and education work to keep children away from conflict zones while also exposing them to war and conflict in a manner that encourages critical thinking and challenge. With a single tool, education accomplishes two goals.


I'm curious, though, that your friend wasn’t near the conflict in this case or in it. He later became a victim of the battle that was going on thousands of kilometers away. What role, if any, do you believe education…

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I'm glad you picked up on the point I was making with further inside from your end as well. Class differences impact the schooling system, and especially the administrative culture a lot, since the impact is also on quality of pedagogy and curriculum-building. In my focus on administrative culture though, it's interesting to note how schools which only the elite class can access are also most of the time running on a rotten system. I am reminded of the example of one of the most prestigious schools in Pakistan and how it was rocked by allegations of abuse and sexual grooming at the hands of its drama teachers, and so on. The cadet college in which Abdullah studied is also…

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It truly is a heart breaking story.


This provokes thought ! God knows how many children who are recruited into these organizations have lost their directions. It is easier to mould a child's brain and they take advantage of it.


If they could mold someone with a decent education - children with no education are easy targets. Moreover, it also highlights the dark sides of the systems sometimes they can be so unforgiving that they can literally destroy a child's future.

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Just to add for clarity -- at the same time, your comment also makes me wonder about how highly educated children and young-adults with worldwide exposures and schooling degrees too have ended up joining such violent conflicts, as you point out as well. I know personally of young doctors who despite coming from pacifist backgrounds have played an extremely violent role in conflicts. Propaganda is a very powerful tool indeed, and also a form of negative education. Which is also why we see it prevalent in school curriculums and education as well.

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