In the aftermath of the failed Times Square bombing, the world appears--not for the first time--to be catching on about Pakistan. That country’s reality is simple: Radical Islamist movements have a choke-hold over the military and intelligence services, and blackmail Islamabad into subsidizing jihadist activities across South Asia, from Afghanistan to Burma, the latter with a small Muslim community. In addition, the large Pakistani diaspora, mainly in the UK and U.S., shelters numerous active agents of and contributors to terrorist efforts.
Many Pakistanis and other Muslim South Asians despise and oppose jihadist agitators. Yet even the opponents of Pakistani Muslim radicalism often live in a convoluted world of conspiracies, in which nothing is what it seems. Muslim South Asians in America note a rising tone of belligerence among doctors and other professionals, directed both at Islamist terrorists and at the U.S. The image of a hegemonic America is transformed, for them, into that of a power capable of, and bent on, destruction of the Muslim world through financing of the very terrorists against whom America is fighting.
In this world-view, members of the Pakistani elite proclaim their long-time attachment to universal, liberal values and their opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan and its penetration of Pakistan. They argue that they have fought Islamists through the civil institutions of their country, and that they never defended such crimes as are charged against the New York bomb suspect, Faisal Shahzad. In many instances, their claims are correct.
But some among Pakistan’s liberal elite also see America in the distorting mirror of Machiavellian manipulation. While they express fear and hatred for radical Islam, they blame its rise on U.S. support for the Afghans in expelling the Russians two decades ago. According to them, the anti-Moscow campaign produced the Taliban regime, although seven years passed between the withdrawal of then-Soviet troops in 1989 and the Taliban seizure of Kabul in 1996. And Pakistanis of this ilk point with rage at the American energy alliance with Saudi Arabia, progenitor of the most radical sect to claim the mantle of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism. Pakistani secularists, like many of their peers now heard in Turkey, combine “progressivism” in politics, a declared resistance to jihadists, and visceral loathing of American power.
Criticism of blinkered U.S. relations with radical and radicalizing powers like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is certainly appropriate, and the issue has become more acute under the Obama administration, which pretends there is no such thing as radical Islam. But the Western links to Riyadh and Islamabad are pragmatic and empirical, founded on energy economics in the Saudi case and military necessity in that of Pakistan. Wahhabism was the ideological foundation of the Saudi state before oil was found on Arabian territory and America began to pay attention to politics there. Jihadism emerged in today’s Pakistan when the territory was still part of British India and America played no role in the region. Historically, Pakistanis have unresolved grievances against their former colonial masters in London, and have only become anti-American as a deranging consequence of their dangerous situation.
American leaders have been hesitant to name radical Islam as the enemy in the current global confrontation, out of reluctance to become involved in religious matters and lack of on-the-ground expertise, rather than because of scheming calculation. American policy is not and never has been aimed at destroying Muslim societies from within by supporting fundamentalism and jihadism. It is absurd and dismaying that anyone should have to state such a thing. But such distorted arguments are now frequently expressed among South Asian Muslims. In a column for the Daily Times of Lahore, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, a professor of medicine at the University of Florida, Dr. Mohammad Taqi, swung between rational admissions about the problem of extremist Islam in America and outrageous conspiratorialism.
Although Muhammad Taqi’s column is but one sample from Pakistani media, it is characteristic of the twisted nature of public discourse in that country, and has been widely read and discussed by Pakistanis, Indian Muslims, and Bangladeshis in America. The Pakistani-American professor lashed out at independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Republican Sen. John McCain for suggesting that the citizenship of terrorists could be revoked. Taqi predictably and absurdly compared such proposals with the mass relocation of ethnic Japanese during the Second World War.
Nobody responsible has suggested that the citizenship of all Pakistani-born Americans, counting in the low hundreds of thousands, should be annulled, and fearmongers like Mohammad Taqi, in spreading such nonsense, show exceptional foolishness. But Taqi expresses his hatred of American power in an outspoken condemnation of the U.S.-Saudi alliance as well as of the failure of U.S. authorities to curb the Wahhabi and related lobbies in American Muslim religious life.
He scores “Muslim groups in the U.S. including--but not limited to--the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Muslim Students Association (MSA), Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and so on,” as “fronts” for Saudi-financed Wahhabi ideology. He correctly notes that in the U.S., these groups’ “financing by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states has been a subject of much writing but no official probe. They systematically exclude people subscribing to the moderate Sufi, Shiite, openly Hanafi/Barelvi [the conservative but non-jihadist Sunni majority sect in Pakistan] or other variants of Islam from holding key positions. . . . A vicious web of bigotry and intolerance has been allowed to flourish and prosper in the U.S. . . . This multitude of Islamic groups serves as the eyes, ears and sword-arm of Wahhabism, Inc., in the U.S., while the nerve-centre and training grounds remain in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan respectively. After any terrorist attack, like the recent one in Times Square, the websites of these outfits are swiftly populated with boiler-plate statements condemning the dastardly act and pledging solidarity with the ‘adopted homeland.’” But, Taqi writes, the main American Muslim organizations remain committed to Wahhabi-inspired radicalism.
So far, so good. The Pakistani-American professor even declares that no rapprochement between the U.S. and the Muslim world is possible until Muslims take back the Wahhabi-controlled mosques from control exercised in Riyadh. But he then returns to the demagogic tune so well loved among South Asians, asserting that “Lieberman’s kind has financed, armed and trained the antecedents of such bigots.”
As the agony of Pakistan continues, it is unsurprising that many of its leaders, as well as representatives of its émigré community in the West, have lost the capacity to make distinctions, and have surrendered to confused and fantastical explanations for the ill-fortune that has befallen them. To believe that the most active enemies of radical Islam in America, such as Lieberman, are, at the same time, its enablers, recalls the mythology of Jewish arch-manipulation upon which Nazism was built--and which is as common in Pakistan as in other Muslim lands far from Israel and Palestine. It also provides Pakistan a convenient “out” from responsibility for its crisis. But the descent into “magical thinking” in politics by the Pakistani elite is also a powerful sign of psychological disintegration, the domination of panic, and loss of collective bearings by a whole country.
Pakistanis and other South Asians at home and abroad must recognize that Islamist terrorism among South Asian Muslims living in the West is a “domestic” reflection of religious extremism within South Asian communities, rather than a phenomenon produced either by Muslim-immigrant social discontent or wildly-unhinged plots at the summits of Western power. Blame for its proliferation cannot be shifted to the United States or other Western nations. To believe that the United States provides clandestine support to the Taliban while sacrificing lives and treasure to fight the same Taliban is no less outlandish than to suppose that the U.S. government planned and carried out the atrocities of September 11, 2001. But the latter legend permeated Muslim and non-Muslim communities around the world, and acceptance of it made possible the growth of equally-absurd “explanations” for the disaster threatening Pakistan.
The West has yet to produce a consequential, global strategy for defeat of Wahhabism, radical Deobandism (the doctrine of the Taliban), and Pakistani jihadism, no less than for an effective curb on Iranian nuclear ambitions. But the main fault remains with the Saudi and Pakistani regimes, which have for too long spoken and acted deceptively, proclaiming their opposition to radicalism while failing to abate it. America remains the main target, not the aggressor, in the conflict with radical Islam.