Wishing away reality

August 19, 2006

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WHEN the news about a suspected plot to blow up a number of airliners over the Atlantic broke last week, I remember saying to myself: “I hope there’s no Pakistani connection for a change...” Wishful thinking. As I surfed the Internet, apart from reading the local dailies here in Canada where I am on a brief visit, it became clear that not only is there a Pakistani connection, virtually all the suspects hauled up for interrogation are of Pakistani origin.

And why does this not come as a surprise? Because over the last few years, Pakistan has earned a well-deserved reputation for being a hotbed of religious extremism that has, wantonly and wickedly, used terror as a weapon to further its agenda at home and abroad. And unfortunately, many young Britons of Pakistani descent have fallen prey to the extremist groups that operate freely in a tolerant society which allows anybody to preach his faith.

In Pakistan, we are in a constant state of denial about the unacceptable level of violence associated with religion prevalent in our society. Since Zia’s days when he encouraged the rise of sectarian and ethnic militias, the country has been racked by an unending spiral of violence.

And the state, far from cracking down on those who use religion to kill and maim, has sought to exploit these very groups as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

This has given these gangs a legitimacy that has emboldened them to recruit and raise money openly.

Indeed, they are now so deeply embedded in our society at so many levels that it is hard to see how the tide can be turned, even if any government in the foreseeable future does muster up the political will and the courage to put the genie of extremism back into the bottle.

Many people in Britain are sceptical about the alleged plot, given the recent track record of the UK’s intelligence agencies. But whatever evidence is finally produced, the arrests do suggest that there is a strong nexus between Islamic organisations in Pakistan, and young Muslims in Britain of Pakistani origin. One feature of extremist groups is that as soon as they are banned, they simply change their names and are back in business.

Thus, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi has morphed into the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, with Hafeez Mohammad Saeed being the leader of both organisations. Although government spokesmen have tried to distance him from the alleged plot, it is hard to see how a militant group like the Lashkar can become a peaceful welfare organisation overnight.

For the first time, the Tablighi Jamaat is being accused of being a front for terrorist outfits. This organisation has long been viewed as a non-violent collection of devout Muslims whose primary concern is to spread Islam.

At its huge annual public gathering in Raiwind, it attracts hundreds of thousands of the faithful in what is described as the biggest congregation of Muslims outside Makkah. But here is what Alex Alexiv, vice-president for research at the Washington-based Centre for Security Policy says about the Jamaat: “All Tablighis preach a creed that is hardly distinguishable from the radical Wahabi-Salafi jihadist ideology that so many terrorists share...”

But what attracts so many young Pakistani-British citizens to such a stern creed? As in the train bombings of 7/7, those alleged to be planning a murderous (and suicidal) attack on as many as 10 airliners are mostly of Pakistani origin. For one thing, out of the UK’s 1.6 million Muslims, 750,000 are of Pakistani descent. And the vast majority of them are originally from small villages in Azad Kashmir and Punjab, and thus share a conservative, rural background. Most are from homes where either or both parents are uneducated.

Torn between the values of a conservative home environment and a secular, liberal society, they often turn to militancy in their search for an identity. And a handful take that fateful step and become members of terrorist groups.

Perhaps this explanation is too facile for what is obviously a complex phenomenon. But clearly, alienation from, and rejection of, Western values is at work here.

Despite the amazing degree of tolerance and acceptance of diversity that characterises multicultural Britain today, people are getting fed up of the disruption being caused by their Muslim community. In the wake of the terrorist threat, flights were cancelled and delayed across airports in Britain. Although the check-in lines were endless, people were surprisingly good-natured about the delays.

Nonetheless, a growing chorus of voices is now suggesting ‘passenger profiling’ of intending travellers: obviously harmless people would be fast-tracked into the departure lounge, while those matching a certain profile would be subjected to close scrutiny. While this would no doubt lead to charges of racial profiling, how else are law-abiding citizens supposed to get on with their lives?

In a recent survey of Muslims living in Britain, an overwhelming majority said they considered themselves Muslims first, and British next. In a secular society, this has come as a big surprise, specially considering the numerous social benefits received by the thousands of Muslims who do not contribute to the system. And 40 per cent of Muslims would like to see Shariah law imposed in Britain. Despite this, 63 per cent of all Britons have a favourable impression of Muslims.

Back in Pakistan, the government is doing its best to put a favourable spin on its role in disrupting the alleged plot. Poor Tasnim Aslam, the Foreign Office spokesperson, has been pleading for greater recognition of Pakistan’s efforts combating terrorism. But she and her bosses fail to realise that while they are determined to see only one side of the coin, the rest of the world is bent on examining the other side very closely indeed. And what they see is the country to which would-be suicide bombers travel to receive indoctrination and training. Canadian, American, British and French newspapers that I have been reading recently have all carried articles and leaders about the now infamous ‘Pakistan connection’.

It is clear that our current policy of stout denial fools nobody. Anybody visiting Pakistan now sees a country in the grip of growing religious fervour. We have unwittingly created an environment where extremism and terrorism breed and multiply. Unless we pull out our heads from the sand, we will not see the extent of the problem. And if we cannot see the problem, we cannot even begin to solve it.