In his detailed history of 20th century terrorism Blood and Rage, author Michael Burleigh, while writing about left-wing terrorist groups in Germany that sprang up in the late 1960s/early 1970s, suggests that the young, urban middle-class men and women who were part of these groups were suffering from a guilty conscience.
They were the children of parents who had lived in Hitler’s Germany, during his racist, violent regime, as supporters or silent observers. However, when their children entered their late teens and early 20s in the 1960s, they felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and awkwardness after realising how their parents had remained silent as Hitler went about constructing his fascist dystopia based on megalomaniacal delusions about racial superiority and mythical glory.
As a response to this guilt, many children of otherwise docile and orderly middle-class Germans plunged into radical political action, like restless teens consciously indulging in ideas and acts that they knew would offend and disturb their parents.
By the 1960s however, (West) Germany had begun to retreat and rebound from its Nazi past and had become a strong democracy, a robust economy and an ally of its former enemies, the United States and Britain.
So when left-wing German radicals began targeting German politicians, businesses and some US military and business interests, Burleigh is of the view that they were trying to overcome their guilt of being the offspring of parents whom they had suspected of supporting fascism and Nazism.
This is an intriguing theory and an interesting way to look at and understand left-wing terrorism and radicalism that emerged in Germany and Italy in the 1960s/'70s. Both the countries had witnessed fascist dictatorships in the 1930s and 1940s.
This theory can also be applied to the present-day dynamics of activists associated with parties like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) and its closet ally, the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).
The activistic ranks of both the parties are studded with urban middle and some lower-middle class young men and women who have recently been at the forefront of whipping up anti-West/anti-US sentiments in the country and are quick to explain everything — from Islamist terrorism to political corruption — as consequences of ‘American imperialism’ and hegemony in the region.
One can safely assume that these activists are the children of parents who sided with those regimes and parties in Pakistan that (during the Cold War) were vehemently anti-left and had taken pro-US stances in America’s Cold War tussle with the former Soviet Union.
JI’s links with the US during the Cold War have never been a secret. But till the 1980s when young JI activists were known to actually attack anti-US rallies held by leftist groups, today the children of these activists are perhaps the most enthusiastic anti-US radicals and the most likely to set fire to a US flag.
What is even more interesting is the fact that a large number of young men who were JI activists before the end of the Cold War in 1991, settled in the US.
Till 20 years ago it was rather easy for a JI man to get a US visa and even settle in that country.
The parents of young PTI radicals too were most likely on the US side of the fence during the Cold War. They constituted urban middle-class folk who (even when they were not directly active in politics) benefitted from the perks of an economy that fattened during the right-wing dictatorship of Gen Zia, thanks to the multi-million-dollar aid that the US rolled into Pakistan during the so-called ‘anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad’ in the 1980s.
What’s more, the chairman of the PTI, Imran Khan, almost perfectly exemplifies the theory in discussion here. He came from a well-to-do urban middle-class family who was opposed to the populist (quasi)-socialist maneouvers of the Z.A. Bhutto regime in the 1970s. But just like most of his young supporters today, Khan spent much of his time as an apolitical young man who almost suddenly became interested in politics, an act that equally suddenly triggered a latent, belated form of radicalism.
So in a way when PTI and present-day JI activists wave their fists at supposed US imperialism or wallow in theories to passionately explain the supposed ‘real causes’ of Islamist terrorism (foreign hand, drone attacks, etc.), they are basically waving their fists at their older relatives who did not burn US flags or protest the violence of pro-US military regimes during the Cold War.
Theirs is a latent radicalism that might make them feel different from their parents, but quite honestly, the content and symbolism of this radicalism is largely anachronistic. It is not of this time or age.
What’s more, PTI radicalism is also like stubborn teenage angst and rebellion and is (thus) also highly self-consumed and narcissistic in nature. Yet it cannot be ignored as being just a passing phase of young men and women who are aping a radicalism that belongs to a time when they were either too young or not even born.
Because radicalism born from Cold War era polemics may have meant something progressive 25 years ago, but in this day and age it can only be described as an impediment and a disruptive nuisance to whatever that is required today for a country to move forward and be compatible with the dynamics of international politics and economics.
PTI and JI’s belated radicalism proves that for a country like Pakistan, ideology has become a burden. Especially for a country where young people are ever-ready to passionately defend obvious myths and spotty illusions, rather than get down to actually do some good in the fields of politics, economics and culture.