Anita Joshua

The arrest of Faisal Shahzad challenged the argument that youngsters take to terrorism out of desperation and deprivation.

When news broke of a Pakistani-American being picked up for the bombing attempt at New York City's Times Square, the initial apprehension among Pakistanis with relatives in the United States was how it would impact their kin and their professional pursuits in the “land of opportunities.”

As more details regarding Faisal Shahzad started trickling in and it was established that he was an upwardly mobile individual — someone who could easily mingle among “people like us” — a new and more frightening reality stared the Pakistanis in the face: he could have been one of their own. So could Salman Ashraf Khan, the 35-year-old Houston-educated vice-president of Hanif Rajput Catering Service — Islamabad's leading caterers — who has also apparently been picked up by the police in the same case.

Shahzad challenged the comforting argument that youngsters take to terrorism out of desperation and deprivation. Ajmal Kasab — the lone gunman nabbed alive in the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 — was a case in point. By a twist of fate, Shahzad's arrest almost coincided with Kasab's conviction and death sentence. These presented to the world two contrasting faces of terror that have their birthplaces in Pakistan.

Shahzad brought terrorism into the plush homes of Islamabad. And not just as drawing room chatter that ranged from “how-can-this-be-possible” and “it's-a-set-up” to conspiracy theories. The disbelief primarily stemmed from Shahzad's family background and upbringing that was so similar to theirs. It also opened up questions on whether allowing children to chase the American dream really was such a good idea anymore.

While much has been written about Shahzad picking up bomb-making skills in Waziristan, he apparently left Pakistan with no bigger aspiration than to make it good in life. From the bits and pieces that were put together by the media before his face with a stubble was identified with terrorism, Shahzad was a weights-pumping, pub-hopping youngster. The constant reminders he faced of his Pakistani origin saw him turning to religion and developing hostility towards all things American.

In many ways, Shahzad, Nadal Hasan — the U.S. Army doctor who went on a shooting spree in Fort Hood — and other members of the upwardly mobile segment of society who have taken to terror represent that brand of ‘jihadi' terrorism which is increasingly being referred to as a ‘glocal phenomenon.' In the words of Rik Coolsaet, the Belgian academic and editor of the Ashgate publication Jihadi Terrorism and the Radicalisation of Europe, the ‘glocal phenomenon' is “a cloak patched from different sources of local discontent, stitched together by a puritanical and radical interpretation of Islam, and thriving on a global phenomenon.”

Evidently, something happened to Shahzad during his decade in the U.S. that made him put his picture-postcard life at risk. Yasser Latif Hamdani — an Islamabad-based lawyer who was at Rutgers University between 1998 and 2002 — suspects that Shahzad was radicalised by one of the many Islamic organisations that are fairly active on American campuses.

He recalls his own experience when he was invited to a meeting of the Islamic Society of Rutgers University (ISRU) by a group of young, bearded American Muslim men wearing in-fashion “rocket jeans.” ISRU was founded by Ramzi Yousef, one of the organisers of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. There, Mr. Hamdani came across a view of Islam that was more radical than that of the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba which has a sizeable footprint in Pakistan's universities.

Worse, in Mr. Hamdani's recollection, was the university administration bowing to “Islamist pressure” when ISRU protested against an attempt to showcase Pakistani fashion, music and dance. This touched off a rather serious feud between the FOBs (Fresh Off the Boats) and ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis). “Ironically, it was us FOBs from backward Pakistan who wanted to present a liberal image of Pakistan and the ABCDs wanted to limit us to segregated iftaar dinners and fundraisings for Palestine and Kashmir,” he wrote in The Daily Times. He further argues that while Waziristan needs to be dismantled, so does the extremist ideology that is germane to American Muslim organisations operating on American campuses.

Added to this are issues of identity in a foreign land that hold equally true for Indians, Pakistanis or people of any other nationality living in developed societies. Caught between two very different cultures, there is always the struggle between wanting to belong in the new land and reluctance to let go of deeply ingrained traditions. Among Muslims, it got sharper, courtesy the profiling that has become part and parcel of the security drill after 9/11, and theories such as the “clash of civilisations.” Says Pakistani-American writer Ibraim Sajid Malick on his news portal: “I feel that the post 9/11 policies of the U.S. government and fear mongering by conservative media have led to increased in-group solidarity and identification on the basis of religion.”

Post-9/11, the number of Muslim women who took to covering their heads and men to sporting beards while wearing the best multinational brands has increased not just in Pakistan but also elsewhere. Syed Mansoor Hussain — who has practised and taught medicine in the U.S. — insists that the American system makes it extremely hard to overtly discriminate against any group based on religion or nationality. “But hidden discrimination will always exist in every society and nothing can be done about it.”

Of the view that most Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere are in denial about religiously motivated terrorism that emanates from Muslim countries, Dr. Hussain, however, says the U.S. will have to address “petro-dollar Islam.” Saudi-funded Wahhabi and Salafi groups place their people in strategic locations to look after the flock (the imam of a mosque, for example), points out Mr. Hamdani.

It is in ‘Sunday' schools — ironically, a Christian import — attached to mosques and Islamic centres that the ABCD generation learns about Islam as parents find they are ill-equipped to teach their children how to read Arabic and the Koran. Many of these schools, according to Dr. Hussain, do not teach the “kinder and gentler” version of Islam. Though the Muslim-Americans — especially of Pakistani origin — are trying to take back their mosques and the Sunday schools, “petro-dollar Islam” is too well-funded to be fought. “The U.S. government will have to do that, but as long as the U.S. depends on Mid-East oil, it is difficult for them to come down too hard on it.”

Though the writing on the wall has been there for some time now, analysts feel that the U.S. has been slow in taking proactive measures to engage with the Muslim community, unlike the British government which began to do so in the wake of the Bradford race riots of July 2001, and more so after the 7/7 London Tube attacks. In an analysis he wrote for the Brookings Institution in October 2008 on the “Prospects of Youth Radicalisation in Pakistan: Implications for U.S. Policy,” Moeed Yusuf — South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace — said America should revisit its visa and immigration policy for Pakistan nationals.

Although he was writing on the measures to stop radicalisation in Pakistan, Mr. Yusuf dwelt on how the discriminatory attitude at airports and embassies was causing resentment among mainstream Pakistanis. This treatment made them challenge the “dichotomy of supporting the U.S. as a frontline ally in the war on terror and being singled out, deported or refused visas in large numbers.”

That the U.S. administration ought to do something to undercut radicalisation is a view also held by Richard A. Clark, national coordinator for security and counter-terrorism in the Clinton White House. Writing in The Washington Post after Shahzad was picked up, he said President Barack Obama should propose greater outreach to the Muslim community to deal with “wannabe terrorists” like Shahzad and ‘Jihad Jane.'

“In the raw aftermath of a successful attack, it will be very hard for an American President to shift the debate in a more productive and honest direction.” The near-miss, Mr. Clark argues, should be turned into an opportunity to refine tactics of countering terrorism, one of which is the “time-consuming and less glamorous work of defeating radical Islamist ideology in the battle of ideas.”

Corrections and ClarificationsIn an article "Contrasting faces of jihadi terror" (Editorial page, May 26, 2010), the sixth paragraph gave the name of the U.S Army doctor who went on a shooting spree in Fort Hood as Nadal Hasan. It's Nidal (Malik) Hasan.