Pakistan and London Bombings

Daily Times, July 23, 2005
COMMENT: Pakistan and the London bombings —Suroosh Irfani

We seem to have a paradoxical situation where many Pakistani youngsters seem more at home with a pluralistic ethos of Islam than their counterparts in Britain — the latter seem suspended between a cloistered ethnic world they have outgrown, and a Western world they cannot accept

Of the many comments to have appeared since London’s July 7 suicide bombings, an angry young voice from the British-Pakistani community, and a witness account of the community’s critical anguish, are especially noteworthy.

In “We rock the boat” (The Guardian, July 13), Dilpazier Aslam spotlights the Muslim anger behind the suicide bombers’ action, while Madeleine Bunting’s “Orphans of Islam” (The Guardian, July 18) looks at the history of Britain’s Mirpuris, the Pakistani Muslim community from which three of the four suicide bombers were supposedly drawn. The articles suggest, each in its own way, that besides political factors, there is an intra-Muslim dimension to the bombings — in other words, the bombings seem intertwined with the cultural dynamics of the British Pakistani community.

Aslam’s highly charged piece reflects the rage of a Muslim “sickened and angered by the events in Iraq”. He points to a virtual absence of an intra-Muslim dialog between cool elders and angry youngsters in a context where many Muslims feel that Islam is under siege. Moreover, the difference in the attitudes of the older and younger generations has come to a head because the younger lot is no longer afraid of hazarding risks:

“Second and third generation Muslims are without the don’t-rock-the boat attitude that restricted our forefathers,” says Aslam, “we are much sassier with our opinions, not caring if the boat rocks or not.”

To his rage-list, Aslam adds the imams whose sermons ignore American savagery in Iraq. He concludes, “The don’t-rock-the boat attitude of the elders doesn’t mean the agitation wanes; it means it builds until it can be contained no longer.”

In contrast to this fury against imams, elders and the West, Bunting speaks of an “unstoppable anguish and self criticism” that she witnessed at a meeting of young professional Muslims in London, who “struggled to find answers to how their faith could have nurtured such a perversion as suicide bombers in London.”

Those at the meeting believed that Muslims had to face up to the responsibility for their failure to transmit Islamic values and teachings as youngsters were lured away by extremist misinterpretations of Quranic verses on jihad.

Moreover, her study of the Mirpuris who account for some70 percent of British Pakistanis, suggests that the “soft” Sufism of Mirpuris, rooted in a 19th century Barelwi revivalist movement, had lost its lustre for the young. In fact, Barelwi Sufism had failed to adopt a contemporary idiom that the British-born could understand and identify with, mainly because patriarchal elders were replicating archaic notions by hiring an “Urdu speaking imam from the home village.”

The huge gap between the village imams and the urban youngsters has made Barelwi teachings virtually redundant for many of the young, forcing them to drift and look for other interpretations of Islam, more responsive to their concerns. That’s how these “orphans of Islam” became fair game for the radical Wahhabi Arabs who “spotted a constituency in these disaffected young Muslims.”

One could even say that these middle class British Muslims became the new avatars of a Cold War era jihad launched by the US and its allies against the Soviet-backed Afghan modernists. The bombers from Leeds were the latest edition of this US-midwifed jihad.

Even so, while the fallout of this US policy, that has now been globalised, needs to be acknowledged for what it is, Muslims need to critically engage with the inner structures of coercion and suppression naturalised in various aspects of their life. That such coercive structures are rife in the life of some British Muslims of Pakistani descent is reflected in Aslam’s writings in Khalifa.com, the UK-based magazine that represents the call for an Islamic Caliphate and is identified with neo pan-Islamists of mainly Pakistani origin.

For example, in “Differentiating between tradition and Islam” (Khilafah.com, 11 May, 2003) Aslam shares the travails of growing up as a British Muslim in a culturally cloistered atmosphere of suppression and coercion, where “many have grown up being smacked unnecessarily by their parents at home and by the ‘Maulana’ at the mosque.”

The mandatory two hours that he and his fellow youngsters spent every evening at the local Madrassa were something of a nightmare: “Often instead of being a productive two hours where minds are filled with clear understanding and powerful culture of Islam, for many it (became) something that they dread(ed) — two hours of memorisation and being beaten for a variety of reasons, ranging from making a mistake to talking to friends.”

However, the scars of beatings and humiliations were laughed off in later years when friends recalled “their painful days at the ‘Madrassa’ and compared the various methods of punishment the ‘Maulana’ would inflict, the most famous being the ‘Murgee’ (sic) or ‘chicken’ position”.

Indeed, while Aslam’s portrayal of the mosque, madrassa and the family with its forced marriages might be far removed from the lived experiences of many British Pakistani Muslims, as indeed much of the Pakistani middle class, the bleak picture he draws resonates with segments of Pakistan’s underclass, from which the “ignorant Maulanas” that Aslam mentions seem to be drawn. Moreover, it is ironic that while hardly any urban middle class Pakistani has ended up as a suicide bomber of Pakistan’s sectarian-terrorist outfits, some British Pakistanis have joined or worked with such groups.

A case in point is Omer Saeed Sheikh, an LSE dropout who became a member of Jaish-e Mohammad and joined forces with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in Karachi to kidnap the Wall Street Journal journalist, Daniel Pearl, later beheaded by the terrorists.

In fact, while most Pakistanis are moving on with the times in a fledgling democracy, many British Pakistanis are weighed down by the self distortions of an over-defensive community against the Western “infidels” (kuffar) culture — as is evident in the unrelenting intra-Muslim debates of the various British Pakistani groups on the Internet.

Consequently, we seem to have a paradoxical situation where many Pakistani youngsters seem more at home with a pluralistic ethos of Islam (exemplified by the founding fathers Iqbal and Jinnah), than their counterparts in Britain — the latter seem suspended between a cloistered ethnic world they have outgrown, and a Western world they cannot accept.

Small wonder, then, that while some of these troubled hybrids of modernity are seeking refuge in Khilafat’s utopia to get over an inner split, others opt for more radical steps, of which suicide bombing could be the ultimate.

However, neither Khilafat’s triumphalism, nor jihadi fantasy are likely to take Pakistanis anywhere. While there is an urgent need for a global moral crusade for undoing international double standards and injustices against Muslims, an equally urgent jihad awaiting young Pakistanis is that of an intellectual struggle along the lines etched in Iqbal’s path-breaking lectures on The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam: a blueprint for Muslim renewal through creative engagement with Western thought in the light of the Quran.

Suroosh Irfani is co-director of the Graduate Programme in Communication and Cultural Studies at National College of Arts, Lahore

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