Like many students at Punjab University, Mohammed Abid Faran worries about living costs almost as much as his studies. To save rupees, he counts on an Islamist student organization, Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), which keeps prices at the university hostel artificially low.
"Here a cup of tea costs three rupees," Mr. Faran, an engineering student, says. "Outside it costs six."
But Faran worries that IJT dictates not only the price of tea but the proper comportment of Muslim students in this cosmopolitan city as well.
"We are studying, and they are saying we should protest, without regard if we are busy and want to go or not," he says, referring to a recent demonstration on campus over the controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. "Why should they put pressure on us?"
Such conflicted feelings underscore a heated debate on Pakistani campuses over the influence of groups like IJT. Islamist student unions are battling for the hearts and minds of young Muslims - receiving a boost from a growing student conservatism as well as IJT's ability to fill in gaps left by the poor funding of education here.
Some 23,000 students attend Punjab University, a place that the government hopes will foster the values of "enlightened moderation." The leafy grounds echo campuses around the world: young men and women stroll together down shaded lanes; a young woman poses giddily for a picture.
But some faculty members say that their tolerant and liberal viewpoints are facing an increasingly tough challenge. And students say they've seen IJT activists beat others whose public behavior they deem unacceptable. In one example highlighted by the local press, IJT activists allegedly beat a newly married couple whom they mistakenly thought were flirting in public.
IJT activists deny such charges. "This is false propaganda. There is not one incident in which IJT workers beat students," says Nasurallah Khan Goraya, president of IJT, which is linked to the Jamaat Islami, a popular Islamist party with seats in the National Assembly.
Members of IJT, who number some 3,000 nationally, say they promote Islamic values not only by policing student behavior but by helping needy students. Pakistan spends less than $600 per student per year on higher education, proportionally less than comparable South Asian countries, according to comparative studies. Its spending on overall public education, the lowest in the region, declined to 1.8 percent of GDP in 2002-03 from 2.6 percent of GDP in 1990.
The US has proposed $87 million in aid for higher education in Pakistan between 2002 and 2007.
IJT leaders say they do not receive any money directly from Jamaat Islami. The bulk of their funding, they say, comes from private donations from former members both in Pakistan and abroad and supports campaignssuch as aiding schools in earthquake-affected areas and holding book fairs. "We have only an ideological link with Jamaat Islami," Mr. Goraya says. "We do not depend on them."
Mohammad Farooque Ahmed, a law student at Punjab Law College, says he was drawn to IJT's methods of instilling discipline and knowledge, and that peace and democracy are cornerstone values. "We motivate our workers to pay attention to their studies," he says, displaying a book where IJT students record daily activities, noting how often they've prayed and read the Koran. Itis presented to a supervisor at week's end.
As Muslims, IJT members say they believe that Pakistan should be governed by Islamic sharia law, but say they do not support the use of force. "We want to make a democratic system," says Shabir Ahmed, an IJT leader. "If people don't like Islam, we will not compel them."
Critics, however, say that IJT's strong-arm tactics at Punjab expose their ideological agenda. Four years ago, IJT spearheaded a movement for a walled-off cafeteria for women, points out professor Mujahid Ali Mansoori. "They would not allow a single boy and girl to sit alone," he says, adding, "When I was a student 30 years ago, it was a lot more liberal."
Professor Mansoori and other faculty say the incident is but one example of IJT's growing power, despite the fact that IJT is technically banned from campuses, the result of a 1992 Supreme Court ruling aimed at ending decades of political violence at universities. And, they say, its influence reaches into the ranks of senior administration.
Officials say they maintain the ban on IJT, but that the group benefits from influence gained in the 1970s and '80s. Still, they say, that influence is petering out. Muhammed Naeem Khan, the university registrar, says he is doing what he can to support that trend. "Whenever I have to exert force, I do," he says, adding, "I don't want to be fanatical in my approach. I don't chase every poster."
Dr. Khan says that the school recently expelled several IJT activists for engaging in political activities, including setting up booths to attract students.
But IJT posters are virtually the only wall adornments in one dorm - and virtually everywhere else on campus.
Afzaal Ahmed, though not a member, says students are compelled by religion to use force if they see improper behavior in public. "If you see some evil taking place, you must use power to stop it," he says, noting that he's seen IJT students attack others. Mr. Ahmed says, though, that IJT should not function as an unauthorized religious police force.
IJT's overall impact has been "pernicious," says Shaista Sirajuddin, chairwoman of the English department. "It's really destroyed the academic environment. It's erosive," she says. She cites incidents where IJT and supporters have tried - unsuccessfully - to remove books from the syllabus. "A small number of us are fighting a rear-guard battle against the closing of one's mind."
But she says that students still graduate with a sense of tolerance, and that she and others place their hope in students like Sarah Ahmed.
"People at this age are mature enough to know what's right and what is wrong," Ms. Ahmed says. "You can't impose your subjective viewpoint on them."
• Rashad Bukhari contributed reporting to this article.