May 07, 2010

Times Square and the evolving nature of radicalisation

I've avoided posting on the recent attempt to bomb Times Square as I'm not in Pakistan at the moment, and couldn't honestly say from London what Pakistanis think about it. However, a profile of suspect Faisal Shahzad printed in the New York Times brings up points which I think are worth expanding and putting into context.

Many people still believe that extremists must be poor and badly educated. It's almost the polite thing to believe because it seems we only have two options in explaining terrorism carried out in the name of Islam. If extremists aren't poor and angry then we have to find another common thread that might explain their ideas and actions, and the only other option seems to be Islam. Of course, this reading of events is the one preferred by bigots and so reasonable people would like to steer clear of it.

However, we have more than two options. Islamist extremism has had a long evolutionary process. It can be argued that it started in the late 1700s in Arabia, found its modern voice through Syed Qutb in 20th century Egypt and tested itself on the field of battle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That fairly slow process was supercharged after 9/11 and the international events that followed. It is reported that Osama Bin Laden wanted the attacks on the United States to serve as a catalyst. To some extent he got what he wanted. What we are seeing now is the mainstreaming of Islamist extremism. The language and aims of Islamist extremism have become the premier mode of expressing anger at the world around you.

In the 1990s, when I was a teenager, the angry young men of London's inner cities were drawn to crime, the language of black supremacy movements in the US or radical leftwing politics. My favourite quote from a friend about Islam was "a bunch of Indian men in beards bowing to radiators". Now, to many of those young men's younger brothers and sons, Islam is a shadowy force capable of scaring "the establishment", "the man" etc.

What strikes me about the profile drawn up by the New York Times is not that Shahzad was from a well established and well connected professional Pakistani background, but rather that he seems to have made the same transition that I have seen taking place in Egypt, Sudan, inner city London and Pakistan. Shahzad came from a comfortable background and he and his family seemed on an upwards trajectory until something went wrong and he ended up facing "financial troubles". He then became sullen and withdrawn and "started talking more about Islam". My guess is that he wasn't talking about Ghazzali's classic The Alchemy of Happiness, or someother such work that is considered traditional Islam. Chances are that "talking more about Islam" means he was talking about war, invasion, drone attacks, Palestine, Kashmir and how the Western world was intent on making life miserable for Muslims.

A clue to this is in the observation of an acquaintance of Shahzad's:

"His personality had changed - he had become more introverted," Dr. Anwar said the classmate told him. "He had a stronger religious identity, where he felt more strongly and more opinionated about things..."

The genius of the al-Qaeda-type extremism that we see today is its ability to seize on the inner turmoil of a diverse range of people (from Texas to Brixton to southern Punjab) and link them to its central world view and then motivate them to take action to they believe will lead to change - change they are not likely to live to see.

During three months with radicals in London and six months in Pakistan as well as various trips to Palestinian refugee camps, I have marvelled at the genius of a simple and powerful message that needs only the most minimal promotion - taking full advantage of the modern world, it's viral and encourages recruits to "self start". "Dr. Anwar said he had asked the classmate whether this change had come through association with a group, and the friend said it seemed to be "on his own that he was learning all these things."

There's no one thing that results in someone trying to kill civilians in the name of Islam. Among the clever al-Qaeda messaging, the personal turmoil, individual personality and a host of other elements, there's the unavoidable connection to Pakistan.

Another family friend in Pakistan, Kifayat Ali, called Mr. Shahzad "emotional" and said that he used to carry a dagger around with him as a boy. He speculated that Mr. Shahzad had become enraged by the United States' military actions, fuelled by the Pakistani press blaring conspiracy theories and anti-American vitriol.

Pakistan is a country of 170 million people that used to value it's status as a US ally. Although, the government is still technically a key ally and relations between Islamabad and Washington seem to have improved, Pakistanis live amid violence and economic catastrophe much of which they blame - directly or indirectly - on US intentions towards their country. I work on a project that aims to remove the plank of religious legitimacy from the call of extremists in Pakistan. And in the past six months I have seen that we have our work cut out for us as that call finds followers and sympathisers in upper income urban areas as well as impoverished villages.

Preventing more Shahzads, underwear bombers, Ft Hood Shooters and Jihad Janes will involve challenging the wrong and simplistic view of the West as the ultimate source of all problems and of Islamist extremism as the only force capable of challenging it.