What drives young men to embrace religious extremism in Pakistan?

Pervez Hoodbhoy is one of South Asia’s leading nuclear physicists and an eminent Pakistani academic and intellectual. He talks to Andy Heintz about why the word ‘liberal’ is so unpopular in Pakistan and the troubled legacy of international actors in the region

Do you think veiling is mostly an autonomous choice made by Muslim women in Pakistan? Or is it something forced upon them because of pressure from Islamists?

Pressure from Islamists to cover up is a fact. The extent varies from culture to culture. It is strongest in Saudi Arabia. Turkey was relaxed about it until Erdo˘gan took over. As for Pakistan, it was once a non-issue but the pressure has steadily increased from the 1980s onwards as people have become more pious.

The mullahs want every woman in burqa. In 2007, I brought a radio broadcast from Islamabad’s Red Mosque to the attention of the authorities at Quaid-e-Azam University. The two institutions are practically next door to each other – just about two miles as the crow flies. The head cleric – our ex-student – had threatened that his female students would throw acid on the faces of QAU female students unless they covered their faces. QAU’s vice-chancellor did not respond. So, as chair of the physics department, I called a student body meeting in the physics auditorium. That meeting ended with a vote condemning the throwing of acid, but not by a huge margin. There were many pro-burqa voices.

Veiling isn’t only because of fear of violence. There are enormous social pressures now. Increasing conservatism among Muslims has led to uncovered faces being regarded as sinful. Once upon a time there was no burqa on campus except maybe the odd one here or there. But today most women at my university – where I have taught for 44 years – are either in burqa or hijab. It’s hard to associate names with these covered-up entities. Exams become a real problem, as do thesis defences.

What are the biggest reasons driving young Pakistani men to embrace religious extremism?

Biased education poisons minds. The curriculum, textbooks, teachers and exams all act to create an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. Islam is shown as under siege by the evil West as well as India. And then there’s the electronic and print media – mostly privately owned – which drips with piety and with conspiracy theories that attribute all our ills to India, Israel and the United States. It seizes upon their every fault and then multiplies by ten. So a mindset is created wherein young people imagine that they, and their religion, are beset by enemies lurking behind every bush. The West is excoriated for being selective and hypocritical – which it surely is. But there’s no introspection, no explanation for how we went wrong. Ask a student why East Pakistan broke off to become Bangladesh and you’ll get the pat answer: it was a Hindu conspiracy. They won’t know of the genocide West Pakistan carried out there in 1971.

Attributing religious extremism to poverty or lack of education was once a popular explanation. But local newspapers have countless stories of young religious killers from affluent middle-class families. Several had studied at Pakistan’s best known public and private institutions.

Why is religious extremism so rampant in Pakistan?

I don’t think that there is just one single reason. Think of a bomb, a fairly complex object. To make one you need the explosive, oxidizer, trigger, shell, etc. None alone can do the job. The same goes for religious extremism in Pakistan. One ingredient is to be found in the country’s genesis. Pakistan was brought into being on the slogan that Muslims simply cannot live alongside Hindus. This wove religion into the national fabric. But, in spite of this, and rampant poverty and illiteracy, Pakistan could have moved in a progressive, secular direction. This appeared to be happening in the first couple of decades after independence but then other factors kicked in. In the 1980s, all progressive trends were rapidly reversed once Pakistan and the US created an international jihad consortium for fighting against the Soviet Union. That was a turning point.

From the day the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, American diplomatic strategy was to mobilize world opinion against them. Officials like Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defence, saw Afghanistan not as the locale of a harsh and dangerous conflict to be ended, but as a place to teach the Russians a lesson. Given the highly conservative nature of Afghan society, it did not need a genius to suggest that Islamic international solidarity could be used as a powerful weapon. The task of creating such solidarity fell upon Saudi Arabia, together with other conservative Arab monarchies. This duty was accepted readily and they quickly made the Afghan jihad their central cause. It was a natural course of action to take. And very convenient too, for multiple reasons.

First, they felt genuinely threatened by the Soviets. Second, it shielded their patron and ally, the US, whose direct confrontation with the Soviets would have been dangerous and unwise in a nuclear-armed world. But still more importantly, to go heart and soul for jihad was crucial at a time when Saudi legitimacy as the guardians of Islam was under strong challenge by Iran, which pointed to the continued occupation of Palestine by America’s partner, Israel. An increasing number of Saudis were becoming disaffected by the House of Saud – its corruption, self-indulgence, repression and closeness to the US. Therefore, the jihad in Afghanistan provided an excellent outlet for the growing number of militant Sunni activists in Saudi Arabia, and a way to deal with the daily taunts of the Iranian clergy.

In Pakistan, Zia-ul-Haq shoved Islam down our people’s throats. You couldn’t get a job in my [physics] department unless you could rattle off certain holy verses. Education was drastically changed and fashioned into a propaganda tool, and the mass media became a means for indoctrination. This strategy created the infrastructure for fashioning the mujahideen into a force that ultimately defeated the Soviets. But it also created the fanatics who later attacked their former masters, both American and Pakistani.

Why is the Pakistani Left insignificant on the national scene?

Before General Zia-ul-Haq took over [in 1978] the Pakistani Left was relatively strong. That Left should be credited with unionizing industrial and railway workers, helping peasants organize against powerful landlords, inspiring Pakistan’s minority provinces to demand their rights, and setting standards of writing and journalism. But even at its peak during the 1970s, the Left could not muster even a fraction of the street power of the Islamic or mainstream parties.

A mindset is created wherein young people imagine that they, and their religion, are beset by enemies lurking behind every bush

Whatever you do and say in Pakistan has to be judged according to Islam. That has limited the appeal of progressive movements among the masses.

Consider the following: one of the most hated words in Pakistan is ‘liberal’ because that is seen as un-Islamic. But you can’t be leftwing without being liberal. By liberal, I mean one who values the freedom of expression – personal and political. A liberal says you have the right to dress and wear the clothes of your personal choice… to eat and drink as you will, pray often or pray never, and choose your religion or not have one at all. In the liberal mind, covering a woman’s face or head should be entirely optional. So every leftist is a liberal by this definition but all liberals are not leftists.

What would a more enlightened US foreign policy in the Middle East look like?

I have no expectations of Donald Trump, but if there were someone decent in the White House they would need to make three major shifts for an enlightened US foreign policy. First, a declaration that the US will withdraw all support to Israel unless it agrees to a Palestinian state comprising of territories more or less along the pre-1967 war borders. This would be an important step towards justice for the Palestinians, as well as take some wind out of the sails of those who peddle anti-West hatred. For too long the US has looked at the Middle East through Israeli eyes. This must change.

Second, the US must dump its key ally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – a state whose cruelty and intolerance rivals that of Da’ish (otherwise known as ISIS). Saudi Arabia is the principal exporter of conservative Islam across the world and the fountainhead of Islamic radicalism in the world.

Third, while vocally criticizing the human rights situation in Iran, the US must work with this Shi’a nation rather than see it as an adversary. Iran is not an ideal partner to work with but the defeat of Da’ish must take precedence over all else. The Middle East today, with its current artificial boundaries, is bound to change. By taking Iran, Russia and China as partners, the US could help engineer some minimum-pain solution in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Aggressive US imperialism has played a huge role in bringing about the terrible tragedies occurring across the Middle East. But for the 2003 invasion of Iraq there would have been no Da’ish. Still, you cannot turn back the clock. Adopting even an ideal US policy today will not eliminate extremism in Pakistan or in the Middle East.

Andy Heintz is a freelance writer from Iowa, US. He is writing a book called Dissidents of the International Left, which features more than 50 interviews with leftists from around the world.