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Asia

In Pakistan, well-to-do and willing to terrorize

Recent terrorist acts by educated men are reshaping the debate on terrorism in Pakistan. The notion that religious militants emerge from economic hardship or poor education has been debunked, writes Nadeem F. Paracha.

In February 2002 the Pakistani police arrested Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-Pakistani accused of facilitating the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan's sprawling and chaotic metropolis Karachi by militants allegedly associated with al Qaeda. After being taken to a hideout in Afghanistan, he was slain.

A few eyebrows were raised when details of Sheikh's background began to trickle in. He wasn't your 'regular' religious militant. He was highly educated, middle-class and had lived a relatively comfortable life in England and Pakistan.

Most Pakistanis didn't know exactly what to make of such a revelation. The reign of terror unleashed by various militant groups across Pakistan was still in the immediate future.

From 2005 onwards the country eventually did spiral down into a vicious vortex of violence perpetrated by various extremist groups, who had by then started to aim at a wide range of targets - from western embassies, to local government and state officials, all the way to members of certain Muslim sects and subsects that they deemed "heretical."

The popular perception about an extremist or a suicide bomber at the time was of a desperate young man, driven towards terrorism due to harsh economic conditions, illiteracy and "imperialistic" policies of the US and its "stooges" in the Pakistani government.

Interestingly, this perception was not only popularized and endorsed by the more mainstream political outfits on the right and the center-right, but even by some on the left - especially those inspired by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and other such bastions of the "new left" of yore.

Not that this perception does not hold any truth. It's only the half of it. But to most Pakistanis, Omar Sheikh was a British citizen. As a terrorist, he was seen as a freak anomaly.

So was Faisal Shahzad, the young, middle-class Pakistani-American who unsuccessfully tried to blow up New York's famous Times Square in 2010.

'Western problems'

In Pakistan, two views emerged when the Shahzad case became public. One was that Western governments were failing to fully integrate Muslim citizens and were actually alienating them through "discriminatory policies."

The other view was that many Western countries had carelessly allowed a number of Muslim evangelical groups to enter and freely preach a more intransigent, politically-charged and myopic strand of the Muslim faith - especially to young Muslims in the west who were coming of age after the tragic 9/11 episode and after American adventurism in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha

Nadeem Farooq Paracha

In other words, violent Pakistani men holding citizenships of western countries were seen as products not of Pakistan, but of the West. It was a "Western problem."

However, amidst this debate, there remained voices who kept warning that even though men like Sheikh and Shahzad may have been products of assorted Western follies (or of 'multiculturalism' gone wrong), the extremist thought and mind-set emerging from within Pakistan was not solely emanating from radical madrassas (religious seminaries).

Intellectuals like Professor Parvez Hoodbhoy, A. H. Nayyar and Rubina Saigiol (and the celebrated late historian K.K. Aziz in the 1990s), began providing detailed studies and research on the books that are being taught in Pakistani madrassas and those being used in the country's mainstream schools as well.

Their analysis and conclusions suggested that though most madrassas are largely indoctrination centers, Pakistan's school and college text books (ever since the late 1970s) too have increasingly been stuffed with jaundiced ideas and half-truths.

They explained that the content of these text books subtly but surely encourages an extremely negative interpretation (in young minds) of other faiths and cultures; and even a persecution complex about how various hostile forces within and outside are hell-bent on undermining the role of religion in Pakistan and (thus) breaking the country!

Findings of these intellectuals had come under vigorous criticism from Pakistan's religious parties.

But this swiftly changed this May when gunmen killed over 40 members of a Shiite Muslim subsect as well as a human rights and cultural personality and attacked an American principle of a local medical college (who, though, survived).

These attacks shocked an already edgy nation, especially due to the fact that these killings took place during the military's unprecedented push against religious militancy.

But the bigger shock came when the police managed to apprehend the culprits. A majority of them belonged to middle-class families and were educated in well-known colleges and universities.

One of them had actually graduated from a prestigious business college in Karachi. He was considered by friends to be "normal" and was the owner of a trendy restaurant.

Suddenly, the old narrative about financially disadvantaged and illiterate men falling prey to the thorny charms of ideologically driven violence fell apart, and the demonized narrative about graduates of non-religious educational institutions being equally vulnerable to the allures of religiously charged violence has come roaring in.

Yet this aspect of the debate is still too new in Pakistan. But rest assured, as things are at the moment - considering the impact of the government's and the military's vigorous crackdown against militancy - it is likely that the new narrative will be propelled into the mainstream scheme of things like never before.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha - popularly known as NFP - is one of Pakistan's most famous satirists and cultural critics.

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