Pakistan’s ideological blowback

Published: May 14, 2010
The writer is a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada (

The writer is a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada (

A debate rages over the links between the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Faisal Shahzad, the thankfully inept Times Square bomber. US Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believe in a concrete connection between the two. America’s star General Patraeus does not. The TTP itself has strangely moved from the former to the latter camp. These connections are relevant from a law enforcement perspective. But to move from the “how” of Shahzad’s actions to the “why” entails examining the ideological forces that impelled him. Ideology renders random acts of violence politically intelligible. It is the difference between individual pathology and collective political action. The politics of violence and terrorism have many enablers – with poverty, marginalisation and alienation being foremost – but ultimately they are driven by ideology and anyone is susceptible. More than the issue of recruitment to terrorist organisations, the operative problem is that the TTP, its al Qaeda ally, and other similar groups have morphed into symbolic signifiers and ideological stamps. They now inspire attacks rather than orchestrating them. They strain theology into a cynical and self-serving political ideology. It is these ideologies that must be de-legitimised.

Actors in Shahzad’s mould are not easily reduced to connections to a terrorist “hub”. Just over the past year, other attackers and hopefuls have spanned from Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab aka the Underwear Bomber, and from Najibullah Zazi the would-be New York subway bomber to Colleen LaRose aka Jihad Jane. They cut across national, ethnic and even gender lines. Like Shahzad, none of these “jihadis” actually live in a community under occupation or assault where desperate and extreme responses are more easily anticipated. They all live in the US, share a westernised lifestyle and include western converts to Islam. And they adhere to a narrow and extreme world view that justifies wholesale murder. Such Islamist actors can be analogised to the ultra-leftists of a bygone political era. The Japanese Red Army – which carried out the first suicide bombing against Israel in 1972 – as well as the Baader Meinhof gang in Germany, the Italian Red Brigades and Action Directe in France were also adept at spasmodic terrorist violence in the 1980s. The case of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez is illustrative. As the infamous Carlos the Jackal, Sanchez was the world’s most feared ultra-leftist terrorist. He has adopted Islam in prison, his ideological conversion evident in his book titled “Revolutionary Islam”, which glorifies terrorism and Osama bin Laden.

Ultra-leftist violence faded only once the ideologies that sustained it became untenable. The catalyst was the collapse of most communist and socialist political systems throughout the second and third worlds. This put into question the liberating potential of state socialism and adherence to mummified ideologies that stand outside of lived history and the spaces of democratic debate. Jihadist terrorism will also only diminish once the failure of its distorted and outmoded political ideology becomes manifest.

More than any material assistance, it is in the realm of ideology where Shahzad’s Pakistani connection is most robust. Pakistan is attractive to would-be jihadis not just because of tucked away training camps but because it provides them rich ideological terrain. The establishment has long aspired to turn Islamic theology into a mobilising political ideology, one that is imposed from above rather than demanded from below.

Pakistan on the whole remains surprisingly hospitable to Islamic radicalism. The ideological leanings of many of mosques are well known. Its mainstream political parties often espouse more extreme views than fringe parties in most other Muslim countries. Quite apart from its oft-discussed madrassahs, the public education system itself excels in teaching a warped “Islamicised history” that bears little resemblance to either subject. Most of all, since the unfortunate reign of General Yahya Khan, its all-powerful military stands on guard along its amorphous Islamic “ideological frontiers”, strengthening political forces on the far right and extinguishing democracy and dissent as it sees fit. In this light, the extremist violence engulfing Pakistan is its ideological blowback. So is Faisal Shahzad.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 14th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (9)

  • Irfan
    May 14, 2010 - 3:44PM

    Excellent article. Raises some very good points in a very articulate manner.Recommend

  • Rudaina
    May 14, 2010 - 3:58PM

    A very interesting point of view. The people who try to understand the pschye of these terrorists do acknowledge that poverty, marginalisation, etc. is what drives them to do these acts. But I suppose it’s become difficult to find an answer for why people like Faisal Shahzad committ such acts. There possibly isn’t a deeper answer. I think your article makes a lot of sense to explain this. Recommend

  • Samir Awan
    May 14, 2010 - 9:52PM

    Very informative. More in depth look at ultra-leftist and jihadist similarities will be good future topic.Recommend

  • Yukimi
    May 14, 2010 - 10:34PM

    Excellent article. The similarities between current “jihadist” violence and ultra-leftist violence in the 70s and 80s is an interesting and insightful one.Recommend

  • Najmul Aleem Sayyed
    May 15, 2010 - 7:51AM

    The writer has made an excellent effort to trace out the causes behind the menace of terrorism extremism and militancy but has left some sides untouched.No doubt poverty illiteracy religious extremism and fanaticism and some specific ideological attachments breed this monster but not at all.The political,social and economic injustices prevailing throughout the world and some specific regions are also paving the way for a violent reaction leading towards terrorism and extremism.These injustices are being further exploited by some vested interests to achieve their goals.People of Al-Qaida are not poor illiterate madrassa going students but highly sophisticated and mostly westrenised ones like Faisal Shahzad.How he became a victim to the people like TTP is a question still to answer.The world must eliminate the root causes along with the breeding grounds.If the root causes were addressed, the breeding grounds will no longer remain intact.Recommend

  • May 15, 2010 - 3:39PM

    Great read.

    I hope you are right about the untenability of these ideologies but being that they are bootstrapped with religious propaganda, they are able to get traction in many parts. The ideological spectrum has been stretched wider (on the other end of which lie liberal democratic western ideologies). The resulting effect is that it shifts the median toward the left and casts a wider net which lures the likes of Jihad Jane and Underwear Bomber. Repairing the dislocated spectrum won’t be easy.

    Labels like Islamist and Jihadist have disrupted even the social spectrum and further intertwined religion with terrorism. Beards and Hijabs are being abandoned, the line between Muslims and Islamists is blurring and the likes of Faisal Shahzad are lashing out.Recommend

  • Rabia
    May 16, 2010 - 3:32AM

    This was a great read. Recommend

  • Moin Siddiqui
    May 16, 2010 - 8:12AM

    It is our army establishment which needs to be sanitized for the jihadi mindset. What is the need to go for a new set of Main Battlee Tank and new Aircrafts when people in our country do not have food, water and electricity. Has it not be stupidity which has brought us in this place today?Recommend

  • BIBI
    May 20, 2010 - 10:15PM

    It is not the Islamic ideology that is making things difficult for Pakistan. To me, there are two reasons, one is the political structure of Pakistan,and the role of Establishment,with the financial improvisation of the people, the internal governance. The other is the root cause, that is to see what is going on in the educational institutions and in the social setting of the western world. The ground is being laid in western world; why the citizens of these countries are behaving nonsense, why they listen to those extremists; why ??
    we need to look into this matter which is prompting people to behave like Faisal Shahzad. I condemn what he has done and has brought a bad name to Pakistan and to Islam. Recommend

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