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Mosharraf Zaidi
December 23, 2015



Disrupting the journey from normalcy to terror

Disrupting the journey from normalcy to terror

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

A number of arrests have recently been made in the Safoora Goth terrorist attack investigation. The social and economic stature of those being arrested represents a nightmare that should give the strategic community in Pakistan many sleepless nights.

We can (and should) lament the catastrophic implications of the erosion of the gap between overtly conservative Muslims and covertly terrorist Muslims. However, some effort should also be invested in thinking about the magnitude of complexity that now so obviously confronts Pakistani state and society. Rather than simply restating the condemnations of, and frustrations with systemic problems in terror-prevention and law enforcement, perhaps we need to take a wider view.

The challenges posed by multi-ethnic, highly educated, reasonably well-to-do terrorists cannot be dealt with by invitations for government to be less dysfunctional alone. The kind of terrorist allegedly behind attacks like the May 2015 Safoora carnage in Karachi, the San Bernadino massacre in California earlier this month and the Daniel Pearl beheading in 2002 defies the lazy stereotype of the cave-dwelling rogue lashing out at modernity. Instead of sustaining these lazy narratives, we should be challenging our own biases.

For years, many of us have sought to invest in a non-binary approach to understanding and dealing with the challenge of terrorism. This was one of the impetuses of 9/11 – Muslims all over the world had a moral, operational and I would argue, even a spiritual responsibility to clearly distinguish Islam and Muslims from the insanity of slamming planes into buildings and killing innocent people.

Muslims had to construct an identity that was distinct from ugliness of the atrocities that terrorists had already committed, and would in the future commit. The distinction had to be total, and utter – aesthetically, narratively and functionally – we needed to be able to self-identify as Muslim, while retaining our origins, our connections, our roots and our future stakes in modernity.

There have been all kinds of ‘Muslim’ voices that have been part of this effort, and because of this, the effort has been simultaneously many things. It is first and foremost, of course, an honest effort to explain phenomena that are external to the persons making the effort. One of my ill-tempered retorts to a Polish friend’s sincere demands for an explanation of 9/11 was: “If you want to know why terrorists are practising terror, ask the terrorists, not me!”

Of course, as appealing as this is in moments of frustration, this isn’t good enough. Terrorists act in the name of my faith, and therefore, whether we call it six, or half a dozen, I have a duty to respond with honesty, reason and in the Prophetic tradition of the ‘ahsan’ way: the way of Hassan, the way of Hussain; the best, most appealing way.

The ‘Muslim’ voice articulating a distance or distinction from violent extremist terrorism in the name of Islam also does so as an effort in self-preservation. This is something that should not be shied away from. All Muslims have a stake in both local and global ‘modernities’, the very targets of many terrorists. These stakes do not become any less relevant just because many Muslims may find varying degrees of comfort or discomfort with modernity.

Muslims are not alone in experiencing dissonance between modernity (particularly individual freedom and the prospects of almost infinitely expanding consumption) and their perception of their spiritual responsibilities. This is a growing vacuum for many religious communities across the globe, and across the spectrum of faith in the 21st century.

The discussion of how and why ordinary Muslims distinguish ourselves from the cancerous violence of terrorists is important because whilst it is imperative that we make that distinction, we must consider the risks of oversimplified narratives that either don’t go far in enough in making the distinctions, or go too far.

Let’s use an example to illustrate the problem here. Consider the born-again, ‘evangelical’ Muslim. For the most part, these are lovers of the faith that want to save souls, out of a conviction that they have ‘the formula’. In essence, harmless and benign.

Whilst this much may be true, it is also true that the road to discovering pure faith, or coming upon a resurgent zealousness in faith is a complicated journey in which the individual makes a number of choices that should, in all fairness, be subject to some degree of scrutiny by at least the families, communities, and neighbourhoods of the individuals making such choices.

A spiritual rebirth often invokes a separation from people and practices otherwise considered normal: many born-again Muslims begin to eat differently, socialise differently and see the world and how it works differently. Many times, this differentiation is accompanied by a distancing, and ‘othering’ of those that do not share the same spiritual journey or experience.

The road from the ‘othering’ of the ‘other’ to the dehumanisation of the other may have many nodes, and entry and exit points, but it is a straight line. And the road from the dehumanisation of the other, to pumping bullets, or spraying shrapnel into the other, may also have many nodes, and entry and exit points, but can also be seen as a relatively straight line.

Does this mean that state and society should suddenly begin to stigmatise ultra conservative Muslims? Of course not. Yet, in essence, what Donald Trump and indeed a surprising array of Republican candidates for president are saying is exactly that. Here in Pakistan, we have a much more complex challenge, and of course, no political leader is willing to engage with it frontally. We have a mainstream religious discourse that privileges aggressive reactions to modernity over engagement with the aspects of modernity that pose peculiar challenges.

Complicating all this is what I would call the millennial effect on Muslims, which is the adoption of some modernities, and the rejection of others. This has created what seems to be an irreconcilable degree of cognitive dissonance. In short, it isn’t George W Bush, or Donald Trump, or even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that is telling Muslims: “You’re either with us, or with them”. Rather this question is being posed to the 21st century Muslim by modernity (or ‘the deen’) itself.

What do the alleged perpetrators of the San Bernardino attack, the Safoora Goth attack, and the Daniel Pearl beheading have in common? A number of things. They were all English-medium. Hardcore. They all had high levels of education. Aitchison and IBA are not charity-run shacks for the poor and marginalised. They all discovered a renewed zeal for faith at some point in their lives. And perhaps most important of all, they belonged to a community or network of like-minded people. In the Daniel Pearl case, this network was Al-Qaeda. In the San Bernardino case, the network was marriage. In the Safoora Goth case, this community seems to be expansive and allegedly stretches from Tanzeem-e-Islami to old school Al-Qaeda to new school Daesh.

What else do these alleged terrorists have in common? Their journey brought them to a place where they killed innocent human beings. The magnitude of this journey is often not contemplated from the micro-perspective of the individual. It should be. It is terrifying. And devastating.

Instead of merely reconstructing these journeys, perhaps we need to disrupt them. Attributing motives (true or false), and asserting causes (real or imagined) represent an autopsy approach to terrorism, something ripe for oversimplifications and false binaries. This may suit the Republican field for president in 2016 very well, but is utterly incompatible with Pakistan in 2016.

Disrupting the journey of individuals from ‘normalcy’ to ‘terror’ is primarily a function of the state, but it is by no means the exclusive domain of state agencies like NADRA, FIA, CID, IB, MI or the ISI. It cannot be disrupted with only courts, or bullets, or jail cells. It also requires jobs, and ideas, and opportunities. It will require some brutality, but it will also require compassion.

Over 100 million Pakistanis below the age of twenty-five are struggling with how to process their faith in a time of modernity, and how to process modernity in sync with their faith. If all we have to offer them are slogans, and binaries, we would have failed them. Failed them, and failed ourselves.




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