We often try to oversimplify complex and complicated issues and subsequently such an approach leads to even more complexities and imbroglios. The effort against militancy and violent extremism has also had one such aspect. In popular perception – often peddled by some officials and even academics – religious extremism and militancy were considered to be a by-product of a mix of poverty and narrow-focused education of religious seminaries. Students of madrassas were considered to be most vulnerable to adopt the path of religious extremism and eventually terrorism. The fact that almost all of the suicide bombers in recent history of the country have come from the far-flung tribal regions or belonged to poor families of the urban ghettos strengthened such perceptions.
But this is not the whole story of the multifaceted and complex reasons why young people resort to violent extremism. Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, an alleged Al Qaeda courier and financier, incarcerated for life in US; Faisal Shahzad, convicted in the US of an unsuccessful bombing attempt in New York in 2010; Saad Aziz, a graduate of Karachi’s Institute of Business Administration, accused of being the mastermind behind killing of human rights activist Sabeen Mehmud; Tashfeen Malik, who along with her husband was accused of a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, US earlier this year, do not fit in the straightjacket of extremists indoctrinated by religious seminaries.
Educated and affluent youth, who go to the most prestigious colleges and universities, are equally prone to terrorism and militancy; religiosity and devoutness cannot be attributed as the only factors. Most often than naught, it is the extreme sense of persecution, a search for identity and political beliefs that lead young, disenchanted men and women to embark on the path to militancy and terrorism.
It doesn’t help the youth when they see themselves growing up in a society that is rampant with corruption of the politicians and rulers, where the elite manage to get away with the most heinous of crimes. It can be extremely frustrating to come to grips with the reality that official malfeasance is seen as an acceptable way of bureaucratic life and religion is mostly left in the hands of bigoted clergy and charlatans. Adding to this combustible mix is the constant talk about politics and persecution, about plight and helplessness of fellow Muslims in other far-off regions of the world. Youth are constantly fed with notions of an irreconcilable clash and attempts of subjugation and dominance by the others.
Empowerment, both political and religious, then seems like an ideal that has to be achieved through every possible means. Such ambitions fill the young minds with a burning sense of purpose. Devoid of such purpose, life and existence seems meaningless and pointless. And, within their own minds, religious orthodoxy and political radicalisation unite to form a potent mixture. Such a calling becomes so strong and so heady that nothing else matters – and blinded and driven by this radical rage, the youth decide to take on the world.
The sense of shame and humiliation at the hands of the western world is the driving factor that leads educated, middle class youth to violent extremism. The conflict in the Middle East, neighbouring Afghanistan and Kashmir have remained constant sources of inspiration and anger within the youth. For long, Al Qaeda used the presence of foreign troops in the Holy Lands as a pretext to wage their version of Jihad. Local so called Jihadi groups have used similar sentiments to fill their cadres.
When Faisal Shahzad defended himself before a US court in 2010, he glowingly spoke of Osama Bin Laden, terming him as a modern-day Salahuddin Ayubi, accused American forces of attacking Muslim lands and vowed to lay down his life a thousand times for his cause. Shahzad came from a privileged background, immigrated to the US and yet he veered towards extremism, taking the first steps when he saw the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007 and concluded that it was an act of war against Islam. The radicalisation within him was conscious and self-taught.
Youth in our universities are extremely vulnerable to such tendencies, especially in the absence of guidance and oversight. One does not even have to be part of an organised group to form political convictions that can mutate into violence and radicalisation. Internet is rife with such opportunities, through literature and easy access to chatrooms and communication with radical elements. For those willing and amenable, the drift towards extremism and militancy is easy and quick.
Organisations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), which claim to be striving for establishment of Khilafat, scour through the internet and university campuses to look for potential recruits. Affluent and middle class students are lured by a vast array of propaganda literature distributed both on and off campus. Many are impressed by the fact that those propagating such views are themselves western educated and highly qualified professionals.
For Pakistan, where the writ of the state has gradually diluted and extremism and radicalisation has been steadily on the rise, the challenge to ensure that its youth do not embark on the course of violent radicalisation is immense. It would need a concerted effort both at the societal and governmental level to face this challenge. The national curriculum would have to ensure tolerance and enlightenment. The law enforcing authorities would have to ensure supremacy of the law and disallow any militant or ideological group to have any public space. Dissemination of hate and violent literature on the internet would have to be checked and monitored.
Most importantly, the quality of education, employment opportunities and a system that promises fairness and merit can ensure that youth don’t get disillusioned. Furthermore, the country needs to be seen working with the international community in diplomatic efforts to mitigate regional and international conflicts. Once an individual sees the state doing its job, there might be little less of a desire to take things in one’s own hands.