Jihadi mindset probed

March 26, 2007

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Much like the promoters of jihad itself, writing on the phenomenon also seems to have become quite a lucrative industry the world over in current times. There is simply no escaping the flood of literature on related subjects. Just pick up any newspaper, journal, go to the web or drop in at a bookstore, you would find them all overflowing with penmanship on Islam, jihad, terrorism, suicide bombings et al. Now all that is very well — the theme has quite understandably captured the centre-stage of global discourse. But, the debate still remains devoid by and large of any empirical input by way of understanding the whys and wherefores of those indulging in acts of terrorism.

On the one hand, there is this deluge of words defaming those professing the faith of Islam on the basis of the relevant activities. Muslims, in turn, would take refuge in their loud protestations that their belief system does not permit such doings. There is also an increasing tendency; especially among the political leadership of the Muslim-majority states, Pakistan included; of calling for the resolution of what are called the ‘core issues’ if the tide of terrorism is to be effectively checked.

The central issue still being skirted, however, is that those taking innocent lives in various parts of the world today do happen to have the conviction that Islam does indeed allow, even ordain, their doing so. That calls for revisiting the times and circumstances, going all the way back to the very start of what has come to be known as the religion of Islam, to determine how such articles of faith came to be incorporated into the texts held sacred by our contemporary terrorists.

The academic effort in this regard needs to be taken beyond the limits touched by some of the most celebrated Muslim reformers of the modern era. For, they all have based their approach on certain assumptions that should, on the basis of historical evidence again, be put to test. The Muslims among such thinkers, for instance, would not question the given that Islam was meant to be a religion in the sense of setting aside its adherents from those who did not subscribe to the belief system. That is clearly irreconcilable with the fundamental Islamic tenet that all human beings ever since the creation of the species are born as Muslims.

One can at this point only indicate the parameters of the research — tehqeeq in Arabic, meaning the search for haq, the truth — that need must be conducted if we are to arrive at some definitive answers to the questions relating to Islam that occupy all thinking minds in these troubled global times. In the more limited terms of Islam’s utilisation as a weapon of terror, however, what remains questionable are the hypotheses regarding the motivation — whether political, social, economic or psychological — for individuals resorting to such deadly means.

The most favourite among those assumptions is blaming poverty and illiteracy for the formation of the jihadi mindset. Closely aligned to both these aspects is the role of seminaries, madrassahs, in this regard. The latter premise is applied all the more abundantly with reference to Pakistan. It is in such a scenario of half-baked analyses that a most timely, credible and useful addition to the available literature on the given subject has come to light. That is in the form of a recent publication by Dr Sohail Abbas, “a Ph.D. from France”, who, according to his description on the back title of the volume, “is a clinical psychologist whose practice spreads over two decades, and has numerous research studies to his credit.”

The veracity of Dr Sohail Abbas’ effort is at once clear in the fact that, unlike our army of desktop experts on the issue, it is based on detailed psycho-sociological profiling of 517 Pakistani jihadis among some 10,000 of them who had crossed over to Afghanistan to join the fight on the side of the Taliban. Entitled Probing the Jihadi Mindset, the 207-page volume has been published by the National Book Foundation. A team compromising doctors, psychologists, nurses and social scientists led by Dr Sohail Abbas carried out extensive interviews with these 517 individuals who were at the time of research detained at the Haripur and Peshawar jails for crossing back into Pakistan without valid travel documents in the aftermath of 9/11.

It can safely be said that no one has studied such a large group of jihadis so intensively, and has come up with such a wide range of psycho-sociological conclusions on the making of the relevant mindset, as offered by this publication. As pointed out by the writer in his introduction to the volume, although conducted some years ago, the study has been anything but rendered obsolete by subsequent global developments involving Muslim radicalism. On the contrary, the mindset that this study has analysed continues to provide the basic framework of what has since come to be known as ‘terrorism’.

In other words, therefore, only the level and intensity of the underlying factors for jihad have been further accentuated to manifest in such violent acts as suicide bombings. The study conducted on the Pakistanis who were lured into joining the Taliban’s fight against the invading American army in Afghanistan thus furnishes a peep into the environment from which the global jihadi culture grew to its present proportions. There is no reason to believe that these factors would be drastically different from those highlighted by this study.

The motivation for those still fighting against the West in various forms throughout the world is no different from that for the Pakistanis who had then gone to war in Afghanistan. It is just that the theatre of confrontation has extended from Afghanistan to Iraq and other parts of the Middle East and West Asia. Only the hostile acts have become more deadly. The study not only retains its relevance to this day but would in all probability continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the current global understanding of the socio-psychological makeup of the jihadis is still informed with some of the postulates that this study has unequivocally shown to be incorrect.

Given the limitations of space, it would not be possible here to even list out the wide range of areas covered by the study. Those factors are as varied, but essentially interrelated, as age, regional belonging, language, urban and rural background, physical appearance, marital status, level and kind of education, occupation, income, etc. Nor does Dr Sohail Abbas present his findings in a socio-political vacuum with reference to Pakistan. He has instead retraced the relevant details from the country’s past going all the way back to its creation.

We would illustrate the utility of the study by highlighting its findings in just one such fundamental aspect as education. In this respect, the research conclusively debunks the notion that lack of literacy gives breed to religious extremism. The larger of the two detained groups of jihadis that the researchers worked on comprised 319 of them incarcerated in the Haripur jail. As compared to the overall illiteracy rate of 45.19 per cent for Pakistan at that time, the rate of illiteracy among this batch was only 23.2 per cent.

As many as 232 of these jihadis had, at the same time, attended a mainstream — and not madressah — school for five years or more. Dr Sohail Abbas thus raises the valid question: “Does this not mean that what students learn in (mainstream) schools encourages inclination toward militant Islam in them?” But, as indicated above, he does not leave it at merely posing the query. The writer then goes on to take a detailed and well-informed look at the history of the education system in Pakistan. What thus comes out in unmistakable terms is the sad reality that that the rot lies not in a lack of education but in what is being taught at our schools.

All said and done, therefore, the book makes for essential reading by all those who are interested in developing a correct understanding of what actually goes into the making of the jihadi mindset. Needless to say, it is only through such a sound perception of the phenomenon that an effective approach for dealing with it can be developed. It goes also without saying that the study is all the more useful to the government and their agencies all over the world that have to contend with the scourge of terrorism in the name of Islam.

The writer is a senior journalist presently working as a research analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad. Email: ghanijafaryahoo.co.uk

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