Faisal Shahzad’s radicalisation — by Yasser Latif Hamdani

The Islamic organisations on American campuses are even more hardcore than what we have heard of the cancer of IJT, which is plaguing Pakistani campuses

Faisal Shahzad’s arrest has brought renewed focus on our already much maligned country. Commentators with only a rudimentary knowledge of Pakistan and its history have been speculating that perhaps Pakistan’s status as a nation founded on Islam is the root cause, conveniently forgetting that Pakistan was never founded on any Pan-Islamic ideals or theocratic millennialism (as in the case of Israel) but was a result of a breakdown on constitution-making between two representative parties in British India. It is also forgotten that the founding father of Pakistan, Mr Jinnah, was a secular-minded lawyer who had explicitly ruled out Pan-Islamism or Islamism of any kind as the basis of Pakistan. But let us not inconvenience geniuses like Mr Dhume of the Wall Street Journal with boring and inconvenient historical facts.

A much more plausible explanation has to do with the transformation during General Zia’s rule in Pakistan in the 1980s when Pakistan was the most allied ally of the US in the war against the Soviets. He not only Islamised the state in a very fundamental way but also helped arm illiterate and uneducated tribes in the northwest. In this it may well be said that Pakistan’s FATA regions have become hotbeds of militant activity, not necessarily always ideological mind you. This is a problem that Pakistan must urgently deal with as well as undoing the Islamisation put into process by the US’s favourite General Zia for his own sinister objectives.

Yet while this may explain how Faisal Shahzad, the son of a top-ranking PAF official, got access to bomb-making knowhow, it cannot I am afraid explain how he got radicalised. The argument that Zia Islamised the education system is no doubt a strong one but one that falls short in this case because Shahzad presumably did not go to a state school or a madrassa. He was most probably educated in a westernised institution and took his British O Level and A Level examinations before proceeding abroad. Unlike the murderer Kasab, he never was associated with a lashkar or a militant organisation. So, where was he radicalised?

The answer is one that no one in the Obama administration is willing to consider. However, those Pakistanis — especially of Mr Shahzad’s age — who went to the US in the late 1990s for an education know the answer very well. Mr Shahzad was probably indoctrinated not in a madrassa in Pakistan or by the TTP in 2009 suddenly but rather on campus in the US. As a 30-year old Pakistani who went to college around the same time, I know this from personal experience.

When I started college at Rutgers University in New Jersey 12 years ago, I was approached by a group of young bearded American Muslim men wearing rocket jeans — the roar back in the day — who invited me in their American accent to attend the on-campus meeting of the Islamic Society at Rutgers University. When I attended what I believed would be the college Muslim mixer, more than a few surprises awaited me. At the meeting I was informed that now that I was in the US, I should be wary of the “kuffaar” (all non-Muslims especially those “white devils”), that all “non-hijabi women were sluts” and that “anyone who eats from the dining hall is automatically out of the circle of Islam because pork is cooked there”. Boy, I thought to myself, I am from the conservative Muslim country, not they. Then when the Pakistani Students Association tried to organise a fashion show, a concert and a dance to showcase our beautiful culture, the Islamic Society disrupted our efforts because it considered itself the guardian of all ‘Muslim’ organisations on campus. This touched off a rather serious feud between the FOBs (Fresh Off the Boats) and ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis). Ironically, it was us FOBs from the backward Pakistan who wanted to present a liberal image of Pakistan and the ABCDs wanted to limit us to segregated iftar dinners and fundraising for Palestine and Kashmir. Ultimately, the university administration bowed to Islamist pressure and refused us the permission to hold such an event on campus. All this was widely reported in the college press.

It was during their time in the US that many FOBs — in a bid to fit in with the Muslim brothers — got radicalised and grew French cut beards. I suspect Faisal Shahzad was a similar case. The Islamic organisations on American campuses are even more hardcore than what we have heard of the cancer of Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT), which is plaguing Pakistani campuses. The kind of terror that these groups create for individual Muslims on American campuses is at least as bad as the IJT creates for Pakistanis in the Punjab University or Karachi University though they are in no position to affect the overall environment of campuses there because Muslims as a whole are a minority.

Anyway, there are enough such nutcases on American campuses with access to Chomsky and Said, who they proceed to twist and spin to their own liking, to create a very real anti-American feeling. If you listen carefully, there is even talk of blowing up “idols” of Mount Rushmore. These naïve Islamic soldiers against perceived American injustices then head to Pakistan to make their way to FATA. This is what happened with those five American Muslims who await trial in Sargodha. No one is denying that Pakistan has a real problem with Islamism, which has its roots in the Afghan War. It needs to be sorted out and Pakistan and the US are doing what they can. I would also like Pakistan to move decisively towards undoing General Zia’s legacy more decisively than it has done.

What, however, is out of line is Secretary Clinton’s warning of “severe consequences” for Pakistan if something like the Times Square attempt succeeds. Clearly, if the Times Square attempt had succeeded, the roots of it lie closer to the American heartland than in Waziristan, which may or may not have served as logistical support. Waziristan no doubt needs to be dismantled but the extremist ideology that inspired the Times Square attempt is germane to American Muslim organisations operating on American campuses. Instead of threatening Pakistan, perhaps the US administration should take a long hard look at Islamic organisations, centres and mosques operating right under its nose.

Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Islamabad. He attended Rutgers University, NJ, from 1998-2002. He can be reached at yasser.hamdani@gmail.com




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