What turns the affluent and educated offspring of the Pakistani middle-classes – young people such as Faisal Shahzad – toward militancy?
That’s a question some Pakistani analysts are mulling following the arrest last week of the accused Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. If found guilty, he would add to a string of high-profile college-educated terrorists of Pakistani origin, including “Lady Al Qaeda” Aafia Siddiqui and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
While the United States and the international community attempt to combat religious extremism through economic development, such as a recent American aid package to Pakistan pledging $7.5 billion of nonmilitary aid over 5 years, some argue that fighting poverty and illiteracy are not enough. Instead cultural factors, such as a virulently anti-American media, “toxic” syllabi at public schools, and the general availability of jihadist material may have become dangers as well.
Mr. Shahzad spent his formative years in Pakistan during the rule of the hard-line Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who instituted a school curriculum that bred intolerance toward religions other than Islam and glamorized militancy, notes Pervez Hoodbhoy, a social commentator and professor at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University.
“Murderous intent follows with the conviction that the US is responsible for all ills, both in Pakistan and the world of Islam,” he writes in Dawn, a leading English-language daily.
'Pakistan's answer to Glenn Beck'
Unchecked hate speech and rampant conspiracy theories in Pakistan may also play a part in radicalizing some of the nation’s educated youth, says Sherry Rehman, a lawmaker from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party who was until recently the country’s Information Minister.
“These [programs] need to be looked at and reviewed. Instead of demonizing the Taliban, they glamorize them,” she says.
One of the most popular nightly TV shows hosted by Zaid Hamid regularly unfurls elaborate sinister theories about how the US is attempting to destabilize Pakistan. Mr. Hamid is dubbed by some as “Pakistan’s answer to Glenn Beck,” the popular talk show host on Fox News derided by many as promoting outlandish theories.
Hamid also advocates the Pakistani conquest of longtime rival India and has suggested that the 2008 Mumbai attacks were staged to victimize Pakistan, in the same way the 9/11 attacks were “staged.” The show has a massive following among Pakistani youth, and supporters include celebrities such as rock star Ali Azmat and fashion designer Maria B.
Another concern, not only in Pakistan, is easy access to jihadist websites. On Monday, Fox News reported that while in the US, a man named Faisal Shahzad became a regular commenter on Islamist Salafist sites with connections to Al Qaeda.
Such sources can help steer personal crises or political resentment into ideological anger. Media reports have said Shahzad may have been in dire straits financially or angry at US military action in Muslim countries.
Many Pakistanis have legitimate concerns regarding the US involvement in Afghanistan and the negative impact it has had upon Pakistan since 9/11, says Cyril Almeida, a Dawn columnist. But he says that what sets Pakistan apart from other countries with populations that are hostile toward the US, in Latin America for example, is the ease with which angry youth are able to seek out jihadist material and find so-called "hangers" – a sort of career adviser in militancy who will act as a counselor and make the necessary introductions to jihadist groups.
Mr. Almedia notes that, even when Pakistani media name mosques that are affiliated with banned jihadist groups, the government or police do not act on that information.
“If this [material] wasn’t out there and accessible,” he says, then people like Shahzad “would not be able to move from Phase A, which is some kind of vague anger at the sins committed by America, to Phase B, which is violent extremism.”