Radicalization of Muslim youth has been a subject of continuing debate in academia and media since 9/11, as most of the perpetrators of that most devastating act of terrorism in the United States were from no ordinary background. They were educated and politically conscious to the extent of knowing exactly what they were up to and what it could lead to. The attempted terrorist bombing of Times Square by Faisal Shahzad, an equally aware Muslim youngster, has reinforced this debate revolving around the following question: What could have led Faisal to contemplate mass murder?
Was he radicalized in Pakistan, the extremism-ridden country where he grew up and was mostly educated? Or, did he acquire extremist tendencies in the United States, where he received higher education, got married, joined his first job and eventually acquired citizenship. Or, is it a combination of both experiences that may explain his terrorist motivations? Finally, does anyone’s relative experience in a physical space matter anymore, when Internet is full of al-Qaeda’s discourse of hate and terror that can influence young Muslim minds anywhere in the world?
Radicalization of a well-educated Muslim youth such as Faisal, with an upper middle class family background, is a complex issue, and any attempt to explain it with a singular rationale should be misleading. That is why it is difficult to buy any of the explanations tracing the sources of his radicalization either in Pakistan or the United States. What can also be out rightly rejected is the typical conspiracy argument that some Muslim or Leftist commentators are so used to making whenever an incident of terrorism or attempted terrorism, targeting especially the United States, takes place—and the Times Square incident is no exception.
So, what may have led Faisal Shahzad to attempt a terrorist attack—while fully knowing its consequences for potential victims, for himself and his family, for the country he came from and the country whose nationality he sought, especially for millions of fellow Muslim Americans? The little information we have about his radicalization trajectory is from preliminary investigations, which point to a “gradual, cumulative and largely self-contained” process, meaning that it did not involve “typical catalysts such as direct contact with a radical cleric, a visible conversion to militant Islam or a significant setback in life.”
Investigators point out that “a combination of religion and anger” may have pushed him towards extremism and terrorism. US drone strikes in tribal areas and personal economic woes are being cited as two reasons for his “sudden interest in religion” and the accompanying anger to resort to terrorism.
Since Faisal’s connection with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is now being officially pronounced by the US government, the argument about his revenge for US drone attacks, in which scores of al-Qaeda and TTP leaders have died, becomes credible. But, then, most educated Pakistanis like him, living at home or abroad, consider Taliban terrorism across Pakistan more menacing than US drone attacks, however politically controversial these attacks may be. If still this turns out to be a motivator, then there must be some anomaly in Faisal’s socialization back home, an issue that we discuss later.
As for the other argument—that of personal economic distress leading to terrorist behavior, or, as The Economist (May 10) put it, “economic stress contributes to political violence”—much more than personal economic woes must have been responsible for Faisal’s radicalization. After all, he is not alone among America’s recent immigrants who became a victim of foreclosures. The financial crisis has hit everyone equally, even the Americans with centuries of ancestral history. Why should only a Muslim American youth with a Pakistani background be an exception to contemplate terrorism amid an uncertain personal economic situation? Why do we not get similar reactions from the much more hard-pressed Hispanic immigrants in the United States?
The two contrasting arguments about possible reasons for Faisal Shahzad’s radicalization are equally worth-considering—and, indeed, questionable. One of them, coming from Yasser Latif Hamdani, who graduated from Rutgers University, New Jersey (1998-2002), suggests that the extremist ideology that inspired Faisal is “germane to American Muslim organizations operating on American university campuses.” In an op-ed piece in Daily Times (May 10), he has forcefully argued that “Islamic organizations on American campuses are even more hardcore than what we have heard of the cancer of Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba, which is plaguing Pakistani campuses.”
According to him, “there are enough such nutcases on American campuses with access to (Noam) Chomsky and (Edward) Said, who they proceed to twist and spin to their own liking, to create a very real anti-American feeling…These naïve Islamic soldiers against perceived American injustices then head to Pakistan to make their way to FATA. This is what happened with those five American Muslims who await trial in Sargodha.”
There must be some truth in this line of thinking, as we often notice expatriate Muslim communities, even those with liberal backgrounds back home, to turn to conservative lifestyles in countries of Europe and North America where they now permanently reside. Still limiting the explanation of Muslim youth’s radicalization to what goes on at American university campuses amounts to simplifying the issue.
Contrary to Hamdani’s opinion, in the same newspaper (May 8), fellow academic Hasan Askari Rizvi has traced the sources of radicalization of young people like Faisal within Pakistan's radicalized society and regressive state policies in the past three decades. According to him, it is “easy to get radical ideological inspiration in Pakistan because Islamic orthodoxy and militancy have seeped deep into Pakistan’s state system and society” …political discourse of Islamic radicalism and the political right has become integral to the mindset of countless people who tend to view national and international affairs in purely religious terms.”
Askari continues by arguing that a large number of Pakistani youth “are attracted to Islamic radicalism and do not feel obligated to the imperatives of collective good or societal responsibility except in an Islamic context because the majority of them have nothing else to look forward to in their life…These youngsters have a tendency to develop alienation from the adopted country and become vulnerable to religious hardline appeals. They adopt an Islamic way of life and mindset that shapes their disposition towards the adopted country and the international system.”
Askari’s logic is compelling. For the sort of extremism and terrorism Pakistan has experienced recently is the direct outcome of Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan jihad and its spillover in disputed Kashmir and elsewhere as well as the Islamization project of the military regime of Gen. Ziaul Haq in the 1980s. Whatever pacifist and progressive tendencies that the state and society of Pakistan retained until the 1970s, reflective of the secular vision of the country’s founding father Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were thrown into the dustbin of history in the subsequent decades. It is only recently that the state establishment has undertaken a qualitative shift in its approach to radical Islam and its terrorist manifestations.
However, again confining the explanation of Faisal’s radicalization to Pakistan’s radicalism-friendly climate of the past three decades may not tell us the full truth behind this particular case. For his part, author Hassan Abbas of Columbia University (The AfPak Channel, May 7) has cited three possible sources of radicalization of Faisal Shahzad. First, he might have been “influenced by various websites that encourage and propagate extremist religious views, mixing religious bigotry and dogma with conspiracy theories specifically targeting a younger generation of Muslims living in the West. Secondly, Faisal likely searched for militant training camps in and around Pakistan's troubled frontier after he decided he would try to conduct a terrorist attack in the United States. Economic distress might also have played a role in his radicalization, though the choice of target implies that something greater than personal grievance was at play—Times Square might have been suggested by his militant trainers in Waziristan, who are well aware of New York's symbolic importance.”
Hassan’s first explanation is shared by Jerrold Post, the author of Mind of the Terrorist, who told VOA in an interview (May 8) that Shahzad might have been inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born Muslim cleric currently hiding in Yemen. Awlaki has used his sermons on the Internet to mobilize educated Muslim youth in the United States to undertake terrorist attack against fellow Americans. In Awlaki’s deadly discourse, Muslims are portrayed as a principal victim of US-led Western aggression, the violent jihad is articulated as the only way to defend Islam, and martyrdom is preached as means to gain higher Islamic stature and the due reward in paradise.
Born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, Awlaki was linked to Maj Nidal Hasan, the US army major charged in the shooting deaths of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last November. His name surfaced again in the case of the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian youth, who planned the airliner attack over Detroit on behalf of al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. Faisal is also believed to have told US investigators that he was a “fan and a follower” of Awlaki.
The whole story about what actually led to his radicalization could be told only after investigations are over, or it might transpire fully during the course of his trial for attempting terrorism in the United States. However, the debate on the subject clearly points to a host of circumstantial factors which produce the likes of Faisal Shahzad—ranging from the sort of radicalized socialization that the youth in Pakistan has undergone in recent years, to radical religious influences that young Muslim students are exposed to at American university campuses, to the impact that al-Qaeda’s Internet-based literature of hate and terror is having on the mindset of Muslim youths across the world.
The issue of youth and militancy in the Muslim world, and among Muslims living in the Western world, is, therefore, not as simple as it is generally perceived. Its solution lies not just in Islamic societies such as Pakistan, which certainly poses a serious problem and needs an urgent solution, but also in Western countries with significant Muslim minority populations. Reversing extremism and terrorism is a global challenge, which will have to be tackled through even greater cooperation by the international community. This is especially so, because it is not just the physical space that is radicalizing the Muslim youth, the cyber space may be also an equally important factor generating violent jihad across the globe.