The New York Times has a piece about the backgrounds of some of the young men who carried out the horrific massacre in Dhaka on Friday.
It seems that some of the attackers came from very exclusive private schools and top universities, and were born in upper-middle class families. This should be absolutely unsurprising to anyone who follows the news without excessive ideological filtering, since Islamist terrorists (and terrorists in all other revolutionary and millennarian movements in history for that matter) have come from all social strata. The attraction that violent revolutionary ideologies hold for young educated people in particular is well established; from Saint Just to Osama Bin Laden, young men with high ideals have been drawn to such endeavors. Joseph Conrad would not find these people surprising in the least, but since late-decadent Western civilization is now crawling with “intellectuals” who are more likely to disdain Conrad than read him, they manage to get surprised rather regularly by such things.
As our Indian friends like to say, “hota hai” (it happens).
But what struck me was the reaction of the kid’s parents. It seems that they are a bit shocked by their kids decision to go off and fight for Islam… But at least one of them described his “pre-brainwashed” son as “..quiet and pious, someone who prayed five times a day and frequented the local mosque.”
Hmm. Maybe that is where he first got to thinking about the importance of doing something for Islam?
Sure, most people who pray five times a day and frequent the local mosque are “moderate Muslims”, not terrorists, and will remain moderate Muslims for life. But every once in a while, one will take all that teaching tragically literally. Mr Kabir surely did not want his son to do that, but equally surely, he (unintentionally) set his pious son on that road. Once in a while, someone will become a tad TOO committed.
A truly “moderate Islam”, one that does not idealize an ummah-based multi-national militarlily dominant superstate, CAN exist. But its theology and institutions are not deep enough and strong enough yet. Someday they will be. It is the only way certain Muslim communities will survive while co-existing peacefully with non-Muslims in states and arrangements that do not privilege Islam. But until then, “quiet and pious” kids will remain at risk for brain-washing.
There are places in the world where the choice of jihadist Islam does not seem very irrational, even by modern instrumental and pragmatic standards. And it is of course possible (though perhaps not as likely as my postmarxist friends may wish) that the neo-liberal world order is itself about to collapse. In which case “moderate Islam” will not be the need of many Muslims. In a dog-eat-dog world, with no “superdog” or superdogs acting as worldcops, there will be many hot wars, and many Muslim communities will survive by becoming more militantly Muslim. War is not the best time to be one who compromises with the enemy and tries to get along with everyone. Who knows, their superior asabiya may even gain them some solid victories.
But total world domination by an Islamic Ummah does not seem on the cards to me. Which means that while some Muslim communities may be better off becoming more fanatical, others will desperately need to become less so in order to survive with (or under) infidels in secular or non-Muslim-religious societies. In these places, the “quiet and pious” youngsters will be an at-risk population. Until “moderate” and co-existence-friendly models of Islam develop their own institutions and theological foundations, to the point that their youngsters can take them 100% literally and seriously and still see no point in picking up a machete to hack some Berkeley student to death. i.e., where they are no longer “compromisers”, but where their fully honest Islamism is not at risk for jihadism because their theologians have long since made all the compromises necessary. Some small sects have already reached that point (Ahmedis and Ismailis for example). Others are on their way, but on their way is still far from arrived.
Mr Kabir may have put his son at risk they day he praised him and honored him for being such a “quiet and pious” Muslim.
An uncomfortable thought.
PS: I MUST add that this “at risk” status is itself historically contingent. Generations of Muslims lived in “traditional” societies from India to Africa to China who never seriously entertained any thoughts of transnational Jihad and lived as decently with fellow non-Muslim citizens as humans can manage in this world. But this is not their world. IN the world of today, traditional, classical Sunni Islam (“moderate Islam”) has been reconnected with its early imperial-jihad-friendly roots in a world keen on identities and rife with resentments..and that is just where we are. Today, Mr Kabir’s son is at risk.
Yesterday, maybe things were different, or maybe they were not (this point is heavily disputed, so we can leave it at that). Maybe it varied. To some extent, it always does.
But we are where we are..
There remains another objection/ That, true or not, this sort of discussion risks bringing more surveillance, mistrust, discrimination, etc. on the heads of Muslims who are mostly neither terrorists nor particularly prone to terrorism. I concede that possibility, but I think we should be willing to take that risk. Avoiding it may only make it worse (such avoidance, taken to ridiculous extremes in some (well-meaning) cases is one of the factors fueling the rise of Trump)
‘We will be killed one by one’: Berkeley student hacked to death in Dhaka massacre made haunting call to her father as she cowered from terrorists.
Post Script: As friend Shahid Mirza has raised the issue of police surveillance, I have to add that this post is not meant as recommendation for or against police tactics in any country. Police tactics are at one level a very tertiary level things, mostly practical administrative matters, and at another level are limited and (and in the better cases, humanely so) by constitutional protections. Neither of these issues was my concern in this post (though I did allude to the fact that this discussion COULD be used to justify surveillance, discrimination, etc, and I remain convinced that while that WILL happen, it can and should be worked out by MORE discussion, not by avoiding the topic).
What triggered this post was Mr Kabir’s pious son and his obvious surprise that his son had veered so far from his own human interpretation of Islam. The thought was this: There are (and always have been, see Mirza Ghalib for example) Muslims who have personal theologies that are immune to the call of free-lance jihad. But these individual (sometimes pre-verbal) theologies (which Mr Kabir in this case probably has worked out in his head) are not necessarily communicated to the kids. A few exceptions may be doing so, but many times parents who are teaching kids to be pious Muslims seem to expect that their own humane interpretations will get transferred non-verbally. This does not always happen. Sometimes the kids learn to love Islam from their parents and then learn the hardcore version from the mosque or the internet and miss the fact that their parents had good, reasonable and humane reasons for avoiding THIS particular interpretation. Some no doubt start thinking their parents are hypocrites. This can be dangerous. Then again, so many things can be dangerous. Why focus on jihadism? I have to sort this out when i get some more time. But I think we have seen enough examples to make this a valid topic of discussion.
Police tactics are a whole other business. And I sincerely hope that in countries like the US their better traditions of enlightened liberalism, constitutional government and rule of law will survive the urge to follow Trump and his ilk towards some sort of pogrom, or worse. Of course, the uglier sides of human nature and social action may triumph in the US, as they triumphed in many other countries on many other occasions (and yes, I am aware of other aspects of human nature and social action that happened in the US too, like the near-extermination of the Siberian-Americans, and slavery and its later penumbra; “liberalism, traditions of constitutional government and rule of law” are not the only traditions here either, but the better ones exist, just as the bad ones do. We hope the better ones are stronger).
We shall see. As individuals, our role may be more limited than we wish.