The most convenient understanding of the phenomenon of Pakistani extremists that one hears being echoed from TV studios and their favourite 'guests' suggests that young Pakistanis turning into religious fanatics has something to do with illiteracy and unemployment. Though not entirely incorrect, this notion however is a complacent explanation.
It fails to explain the emergence of young religious extremists such as Omar Shaikh, Shahzad Tanveer, Hasib Hussain and Faisal Shahzad. Each one of these young men came from educated middle-class families.
Saying they were products of western societies that they were raised in is a weak retort. This attitude simply refuses to seriously address the issue of educated young Pakistanis falling for a myopic and nihilistic brand of the faith — something that was once explained as a vocation only of the illiterate and the financially desperate. There has been an alarming rise in the number of young, educated middle-class Pakistanis (here and abroad), embracing the most reactionary and anarchic strains of the faith, believing it to be a justified and logical portrayal of ‘true’ Islam.
The state and the government of Pakistan will have to thoroughly investigate and rectify this alarming trend. While actors like the 7/7 bombers and Faisal Shahzad are obvious embarrassments to Pakistan and to the Pakistani communities in the West, so are the growing number of rabid, tech-savvy young people floating around various interactive websites to mouth the most obnoxious ideas about Islam and politics. There are websites out there glorifying utter mad men and propagating most twisted conspiracy theories, and many of these are owned, run and frequented by Pakistanis who work and are comfortably settled in western countries.
Just as the sudden rise of certain crackpots (via TV) in Pakistan was keenly followed and supported by a chunk of young, urban Pakistanis, various cranks are happily catering to the already confused religious and ideological bearings of Muslim Pakistanis living abroad. Much has been written about people like Zaid Hamid, Aamir Liaquat and Zakir Naik — men who cleverly represent (and glorify) the increasingly chauvinistic mindset of the current generation of young urbanites.
A recent book on Farhat Hashmi’s organisation, Al-Huda, (written by a Pakistani woman), accuses her of spreading hatred against Christians, Hindus and Jews among Pakistani women living in Canada. In the wake of the Faisal Shahzad episode in New York last year, the Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC), a group of liberal Muslims living in Canada, accused American Islamic organisations of refusing to distance themselves from the doctrine of armed jihad waged by extremists, as did the Deobandi ulema’s conference back home late last year.
The MCC goes on to state that many young Pakistanis living in the United States and Canada regard Pakistan as a safe haven for their preparation and training for waging wars against the West. Organisations like the MCC have also come down hard on outfits such as Al-Huda, refuting their claim that they are on a mission to convert westerners to Islam.
Nevertheless, even in liberal countries like US, UK and Canada, organisations like the MCC are coming under direct attack and threats from their more myopic counterparts who, it seems, are free to peddle away hatred and confusion to Muslims living abroad.
But, of course, the situation is more alarming in this respect in Pakistan. Political Islam - a mid-20th century philosophy that advocates the creation of a theocratic society and state through the Islamisation of politics - was once the prerogative of conservative scholars and established political parties such as Abul Ala Mauddudi and his Jamat-i-Islami. However, ever since the late 1980s it has rapidly disintegrated into a bare but populist entity with two prominent strains.
One strain has striped off this philosophy's more scholarly aspects and left only its violent jihadist aspects to work with. This strain can now be found in the barbaric ways of extremist organisations like the Taliban and many of Pakistan's sectarian outfits. The other strain has been working to turn political Islam into a populist set of easy-to-digest ideas through which, either elections can be fought or the military-establishment can be infiltrated and used as a patron.
The JI tried flaunting the populist aspects of political Islam during the 1977 and 1993 elections, but failed. Nawaz Sharif's PML-N did so throughout the 1990s and somewhat did succeed but only with the help of the military-establishment. Political Islam's historical drubbling in elections in Pakistan has increasingly made this philosophy the vocation of certain powerful sections of Pakistan's military and its many mouthpieces in the popular Urdu media and in so-called Islamic evangelist movements.
Its most recent advocate (again with a more than a little help from certain sections in the military establishment) is cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Though Imran's party, the PTI, has been quite a disaster in the two elections that it took part in, he has suddenly been propped up by an aggressive right-wing electronic media and an increasingly confused number of young middle-class urbanites.
Though, quite like Imran, most of his followers' lifestyles are rather 'westernised,' these are no liberals believing in concepts like democratic pluralism or in the importance of tolerating and promoting religious, sectarian and ethnic diversity. By the looks of it, they see democracy as a threat to Pakistan’s imagined existence as a monotheistic state and society based on a single (state-sanctioned and clergy-approved) strain of the faith.
Imran fans, like the pro-Musharraf ‘moderates’, have, at best, sound like 21st century versions of Ziaul Haq. Instead of a sherwani and a stern frown, they can be seen in modern, western clothes and designer shalwar-kameez spouting the most worn-out rhetoric and narrative that was started by the state under Zia and his politico-religious sidekicks.
It’s the usual beat: Pakistan and democracy are not compatible; democratic pluralism promotes ethnocentricity; secularism is akin to atheism; religious extremism and violence are the handiwork of the ‘anti-Pakistan’ and ‘anti-Islam’ elements (mainly foreign), and the state and intelligence agencies of Pakistan have nothing to with it. Also to these Ipod carrying 'revolutionaries' there is only one correct version of Islam but most Pakistanis follow a corrupted and adulterated version because they are illiterate and superstitious; anyone questioning these assumptions is a traitor and that only politicians are corrupt, and we need a strong leader who cannot come through democracy because most Pakistanis are ignorant.
Furthermore, anyone also questioning the obvious and yet padded extremism and soft authoritarianism peddled by the Imran brigade is a ‘liberal extremist’ who is undermining religion and promoting ‘corrupt politicians'. And should I even get into their take on the need of a worldwide caliphate? Maybe not. Don't want to turn this piece into a black comedy, if you know what I mean.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
He tweets @NadeemfParacha
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.