A nation in denial

JUST before sitting down to write this, I was watching BBC World, and was informed that 11 out of those arrested recently on suspicion of planning terrorist acts had been formally charged. When the news about a suspected plot to blow up a number of airliners over the Atlantic first broke, I remember saying to myself: "I hope there’s no Pakistani connection for a change."

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 24 Aug 2006, 8:53 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:25 PM

Events were to prove this to be wishful thinking. As I surfed the Internet, apart from reading the local dailies here in Canada where I am on a brief visit, it became clear that not only was there a Pakistani connection, virtually all the suspects hauled up for interrogation were of Pakistani origin. And why did this not come as a surprise? Because over the last few years, Pakistan has earned a well-deserved reputation for being a hotbed of religious extremism that has used terror as a weapon to further its agenda at home and abroad. And unfortunately, many young Britons of Pakistani descent have gravitated towards the extremist groups that operate freely in a tolerant society, which allows anybody to proselytise their faith.

Back in Pakistan, we are in a constant state of denial about the unacceptable level of violence associated with religion. Since Zia’s days, when he encouraged the rise of sectarian and ethnic militias, the country has been constantly shaken by an unending spiral of violence. And the state, far from cracking down on those who use religion to kill and maim, has sought to exploit these very groups to further its aims in Afghanistan and Kashmir. This has given these gangs a legitimacy that has emboldened them to recruit and raise money openly. Indeed, they are now so deeply embedded in our society at so many levels that it is hard to see how the tide can be turned, even if any government in the foreseeable future does muster up the political will and the courage to put the genie of extremism back into the bottle.

Many people in Britain, particularly Muslims, are sceptical about the alleged plot, given the recent track record of UK’s intelligence agencies. But whatever evidence is finally produced, the arrests do suggest that there is a strong nexus between Islamic organisations in Pakistan, and young Muslims in Britain of Pakistani origin. One feature of extremist groups is that as soon as they are banned, they simply change their names and are back in business. Thus, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, originally the Sipah-e-Sahaba, has now morphed into the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, with Hafeez Mohammad Saeed being the leader of both the Lashkar and the Jamaat. Although government spokesmen have tried to distance him from the alleged plot, it is hard to see how a militant group like the Lashkar can become a peaceful welfare organisation overnight.

And for the first time, the Tablighi Jamaat is being accused of being a front for terrorist outfits. This organisation has long been viewed as a non-violent collection of devout Muslims whose primary concern is to spread Islam. At its huge annual public gathering at Raiwind in Lahore, it attracts hundreds of thousands of the faithful to what is described as the biggest congregation of Muslims outside the holy city of Makah. But here is what Alex Alexiv, vice president for research at the Washington-based Centre for Security Policy says about the Jamaat: "All Tablighis preach a creed that is hardly distinguishable from the radical Wahhabi-Salafi jihadist ideology that so many terrorists share."

The question to ask is what attracts so many young Pakistani-British citizens to such a stern creed? As in the London bombings of 7/7, those alleged to be planning an attack on as many as ten airliners are mostly of Pakistani origin. For one thing, out of the UK’s 1.6 million Muslims, 750,000 are of Pakistani descent. And the vast majority of them originate from small villages in Azad Kashmir and Punjab, and thus share a conservative, rural background. Most are from homes where either or both parents are uneducated. Torn between the values of a conservative home environment and a secular, liberal society, they often turn to militancy in their search for an identity. Perhaps this explanation is too facile for what is obviously a complex phenomenon. But clearly, alienation from, and rejection of, Western values is at work here.

Even in multicultural Britain, people are getting fed up of the disruption being caused by their Muslim community. In the wake of the terrorist threat, flights were cancelled and delayed across airports in Britain. Although the check-in lines were endless, people were surprisingly good-natured about the delays. Nonetheless, a growing chorus of voices is now suggesting ‘passenger profiling’ of intending travellers: obviously harmless people would be fast-tracked into the departure lounge, while those matching a certain profile would be subjected to close scrutiny. While this would no doubt lead to charges of racial profiling, how else are law-abiding citizens supposed to get on with their lives?

In a recent survey of Muslims living in Britain, an overwhelming majority said they considered themselves Muslims first, and British next. In a secular society, this has come as a big surprise, specially considering the numerous social benefits received by the thousands of Muslims who do not contribute to the system. And 40 per cent of Muslims would like to see Sharia law imposed in Britain. Despite this, 63 per cent of all Britons have a favourable impression of Muslims.

Back in Pakistan, the government is doing its best to put a favourable spin on its role in disrupting the alleged plot. Tasnim Aslam, the Foreign Office spokesperson, has been pleading for greater recognition of Pakistan’s efforts in combating terrorism. But she and her bosses fail to realise that while they are determined to see only one side of the coin, the rest of the world is bent on examining the other side very closely indeed. And what they see is the country to which would-be suicide bombers travel to receive indoctrination and training. Canadian, American, British and French newspapers that I have been reading recently have all carried articles and leaders about the now infamous ‘Pakistan connection’.

It is clear that our current policy of stout denial fools nobody. Anybody visiting Pakistan now sees a country in the grip of growing religious fervour. Young men with long beards and green turbans are a common sight, as are women covered from head to foot. We have created an environment where extremism and terrorism breed and multiply. Unless we pull out our heads from the sand, we will not see the extent of the problem. And if we refuse to acknowledge we have a problem, we cannot even begin to solve it.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani writer based in London. He can be reached at irfan.husain@gmail.com

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