UMD: A Globally Connected University

Madiha Afzal, Assistant Professor in the School of Public Policy

Being Pakistani in an age of enhanced militancy and aggression by non-state actors is not easy. It is even harder being involved in the analysis of these actors and the factors that drive them. But that is exactly what Madiha Afzal, assistant professor in the School of Public Policy is trying to do.

“I study the roots of extremism in Pakistan, looking at the contribution of factors including education—both (lack of) schooling and the content of curricula; the role of state policies—including Pakistan’s laws, state policy toward militant groups, its national narrative and rhetoric; its media; its Islamist parties,” says Afzal when describing her work.

A graduate of the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences, she completed her doctorate at Yale University in economics, but decided to apply that research method to examining voter choices and legislative behavior in Pakistan, particularly as it impacts extremist thought.

It is an exercise in patience: much of the history behind these issues is buried in government archives and not publicly available. “Since the 1980s, historians and scholars have criticized Pakistan’s official curriculum and textbooks (especially English and Urdu language textbooks, and both Islamic and Pakistan studies), have documented biases and historical errors in them, and have argued that the books promote intolerance and bigotry,” Afzal recently wrote in a highly quoted report for the U.S. Institute for Peace.

“I study not just how these factors have contributed to extremism, but why—what are the origins of these policies—which also points me toward the main barriers to countering them,” says Afzal.

While she is also a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, Afzal says her experience at UMD is particularly enriching. “UMD is a huge campus, both in terms of area and the number of students, so that struck me most when I first came here…my graduating class had fewer than 200 students! Then I was at Yale for my Ph.D. New Haven – because it’s not near a big city the way that College Park is to Washington – also feels like more of a university town. But UMD has an energy on campus that is amazing.”

Afzal says she would love to see growth in UMD’s Pakistani population, a task that she says is not very complicated and could help bridge some of the divide between the countries and the perceptions they have of each other. “Engage in outreach to some of the major schools and colleges in Pakistan through Pakistani alums from UMD—while Pakistan is a huge country, the number of schools and colleges to target is relatively small, and so it’s a relatively easy task.”