UNKIND are the ones who have been compelled by their own ideas of suspects to cast aspersions on the motives of those who thought the Tashfeen Malik identity card could be a fake. The question might well have risen out of innocent curiosity. It had already been established that the suspect, who allegedly accompanied her husband on a deadly shooting spree, unfortunately belonged to this beloved country of ours.
After his uncles had spoken and his companions had vouched for her normal or abnormal behaviour, there was little purpose in disputing where she had come from. That was settled and if a reason to be unhappy was to be found there was a whole pile generated by the furtive investigation her erstwhile surroundings had been subjected to.
There was, indeed, quite a lot that could be scrutinised, since, as per routine, there was much oversimplification. And coinciding with it, of course, was an exercise that, given the nature of evidence, either sought to contain the problem within a specific area of Pakistan or, if the situation so allowed, put the blame on an imported foreign ideology.
There was precious little information on the background of the American-origin partner in crime. The only information which vaguely hinted at the personality of Syed Farook was a passing reference somewhere to his troubled childhood, which, appeared to indicate his vulnerability to the use of violence to force an issue, in the way it is usually done by the standard tellers of popular stories.
Many must have been relieved to conclude that if Tashfeen Malik’s radicalisation didn’t take place away in Multan, she must have caught the militant germ in Saudi Arabia.
What got some instant, flashy coverage was the response of the man’s immediate family to the tragic shooting incident. They were shown in shock, completely unaware of the reasons behind the actions of a prosperous, well-entrenched young man and his possibly rebellious, terror-instigating wife. In a land where everything moves at a much faster pace than proceedings mostly do in Pakistan, it took the investigators many days to ponder over the question that Farook might have already been ‘radicalised’ when he reportedly met his future wife in Saudi Arabia.
The initial focus remained on the appealing and conveniently available formula that called out to the global media pace-setters in Multan and its vicinity. In time it turned out that this was a formula so many in the country were also comfortable with. Muslims. Militant. Exposed to madressah students. Multan. It did fit the locally prevailing perception at the same time.
According to details, Tashfeen’s elders were traced to Layyah and Taunsa. Her father went away to Saudi Arabia but when it was decided that Tashfeen should go to a college in Pakistan, she was enrolled in Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, the biggest city in southern Punjab where her father was said to have built a house for the family.
Whereas the Pakistani and Saudi connection made things so much easier to understand in the West, the confinement of the story to southern Punjab enabled the perpetuation of the local ‘truth’, as so many of us want it. Did not we all believe that the region of which Multan — and Layyah and Taunsa — is a part is a hotbed of extremism? And in case this was not distant enough for Lahore and Islamabad or even Karachi for that matter, the story offered us all a second escape: Saudi Arabia.
Many of those looking at it sitting in Lahore must have been relieved to conclude that if the radicalisation of Tashfeen Malik didn’t take place away in deliberately distant Multan, she must have caught the militant germ in Saudi Arabia. That country, incidentally, practises a form of Islam divorced from, when we want to cite the fact, our own tolerant traditions.
It was somewhat like this. There was one group that didn’t need any new evidence about the Western conspiracy against Islam and Pakistan. Their minds were made up and no argument could bring them back to having another discussion on the factors that divide and unite this world and in what categories.
The second group was a little concerned to begin with but found solace relatively early being a case of backward Pakistan unable to handle the opportunities to educate itself positively.
Now the third group which might have had some sympathy for this backward, underprivileged region, too, was provided an explanation it was comfortable with. It was Saudi Arabia’s doing, and no one but the holy land or those who could talk to its custodians could remedy that. This is the formula that Pakistanis generally apply to stave off challenges to their will to ignore what is staring them in the face.
This obviously puts greater responsibility on the shoulders of the media to try and create an atmosphere where realisation about the presence of extremism and actions against militants becomes unavoidable. The media, especially when there is foreign interest in a story, acts fast. It did the same this time, as someone has said bringing back memories of the Ajmal Kasab case where the journalist beat the government officials to the subsequently infamous Faridkot village near Deepalpur. But then the media did, as per its habit, oversimplify things.
There are so many who are really delighted when Al Huda is used to paint the desired extremist picture of Tashfeen Malik and the next moment, as if suddenly beholden to certain ethics, the author of the news story clarifies that the religious group which works by Saudi ideals and can be criticised over so many issues has never been linked to terrorism. So abruptly the stereotype appears to be rushed and incomplete which offers dangers of its own and feeds believers in constant conspiracy.
The oversimplification allows a convenient, steady crossover of people from the second and third categories given here to the first rabid group. It is a group which is not prepared to listen to any reason or submit to any reality other than the one they have in their mind.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2015