What could possibly have possessed Faisal Shahzad, a wealthy, happily married college graduate with two children and everything in life apparently working in his favour, to set out to Times Square and attempt to leave a bomb behind?
His bizarre adventure opens up questions as to the nature of terrorism in our country. It is widely held that militancy is essentially the product of deprivation and the despondency it brings with it. Ajmal Kasab fits classically into this mould. A school drop-out and labourer, with few hopes of moving up in life, Kasab was the ideal target for recruitment by a militant organisation. Such organisations watch out for vulnerable young men everywhere. Smaller towns are a favourite recruitment ground; unemployment aids them immensely in their task. The prospect of possessing a gun is a big temptation for the average, down-and-out 19-year-old. The psychology of this is not hard to understand. But Faisal Shahzad came from the opposite end of the social spectrum. His motives then are something of a mystery and militancy as a phenomenon much harder to understand because of the involvement of young men such as Faisal.
There is, it appears, something within the mindset of Pakistanis – the young in particular – that favours violence and the ideas that are a factor behind militant actions. The years under the late General Ziaul Haq and the disastrous involvement in the Afghan war are of course key factors in creating this mode of thinking. It explains why there is so much support for Aafia Siddiqui and even for the Taliban. While a small number of young people, in the two-decade time span since Zia was killed in the skies over Bahawalpur, have succeeded in breaking out of this mode and are moving towards the more relaxed, more liberal style of life we knew till the 1970s, most have remained trapped in the past and the flawed notions created through the 1980s.
These ideas present a threat. The US secretary of state has made quite clear what the consequences of a terror plot would be for Pakistan. Students fear that obtaining visas will become harder; those already in the US report an increase in hostility from Americans. This is of course hardly surprising. The fact is that the world associates Pakistan firmly with terrorism. Terrorist plots of all kinds seem to emanate in the country and news with an Islamabad dateline frequently features reports about militant activity. The consequences of this have been extremely adverse.
The entrenched mindset that backs militancy is much harder to defeat than the militants themselves. It is possible, in theory at least, that the war against the Taliban may eventually, in purely physical terms, be won. Territory has indeed been wrested back from them in many places in the north-west – even though local people continue to talk of militants finding it easy to escape as little effort is being made to capture key leaders. This of course is alarming. If the nexus between the establishment and the Taliban is not broken now, there is a danger it will never be. After all if attacks on GHQ and the mosque frequented by top army officers in Rawalpindi are not enough to demonstrate what the risks of the current situation are, nothing will achieve this. But even if we assume that the operation that continues in the north-west is indeed intended to eliminate the Taliban we must ask what is being done to erase the trends that lead to individuals such as Faisal Shahzad taking up the Taliban cause.
For now, some debate continues over whether Shahzad acted alone or he had been a part of one of the many militant organisations based in various parts of the country. There are so many of them, with splinters and sub-splinters constantly emerging, that like the Pakistan Muslim League which now features groups with increasingly complex alphabetical equations attached with a hyphen to their names, it has become all but impossible to keep track. The fact that a number of these groups simply changed their names in the wake of bans after 9/11 makes the task still harder. Even veteran journalists keep the acronyms taped to desktops to enable them to identify potential culprits after each new bombing or act of terror. But the question of whether Faisal Shahazad was in some way linked to one of them is largely immaterial. The fact is that he acted along militant lines, evidently because he believed in what they espoused, and this is what is significant.
We need to find ways to alter the mindset that gives rise to acts of the kind seen in New York. It is a fallacy to believe that things have changed since Zia. It is true that we have seen some opening up of society, but with this has come also a hardening of lines. The parallels that can be drawn with Iran in the pre-revolution period are terrifying. It is also a fact that there is much that is deceptive about the new face of Pakistan. Many who would seem to favour liberal values hold views on key issues that fall in line with those of the extremists. Some surveys indicate almost 80 per cent of people believe religion should have a place in political life – even though, encouragingly, such views do not translate into votes for religious or pseudo-religious parties. Obscurantist religious groups, encouraged to establish a hold under Zia, have begun to elbow out the traditional, more relaxed religious orders that emerged in the subcontinent. In practical terms these trends translate into a pattern which leads to tiny schoolgirls and boys being rigged out in scarves or skullcaps and into a religious dimension appearing in the rhymes chanted by children on playgrounds even at elite institutions.
It will take very real political will, indeed a sense of mission, to alter this. At present there seems to be no force capable of undertaking such a task with the required level of commitment or good sense. Even our understanding of quite why we have become the world`s centre for militancy is somewhat obscure – and this leaves open the risk that one day a Pakistani citizen – in Mumbai, in New York, London or elsewhere — will succeed in carrying out some act of terror, plunging us all into still deeper crisis.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor
Source: The News, May 13, 2010