x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Shahzad's story doesn't fit the tired narrative

The narrative of the man accused of trying to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square does not lend itself easily to stereotypes and clichés.

"Mr Shahzad had peered critically at a glass of whiskey the friend was holding, indicating a judgemental stance typical for rigid jihadis" The New York Times, May 6 The "Mr Shahzad" referred to here is, of course, Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American accused of trying to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square, and this snippet from The New York Times is just one of the many examples of misjudgements and bad commentary that riddled the airwaves and the print media after his attempted attack.

In this case, are we to assume from this piece of purple prose that anyone who "peers critically" at strong liquor is typically a "jihadi"? If so, we better have that no-fly list enlarged. A lot. The stereotyping that seems reflexively to follow from incidents like this does not stop with silly notions about Muslims and alcohol. For instance, as soon as it emerged that the suspect was a Muslim Pakistani who recently had been granted US citizenship, one commentator noted that Muslim-American communities were "further doomed to collective mistrust and suspicion".

Never mind that it was a Senegalese immigrant and religious Muslim, Aliou Niasse, who alerted police that the suspect was up to no good. Mr Niasse was subsequently lauded by Muslim-American organisations. In doing so, these groups showed their loyalty to America and their pride that one of their own stopped a potentially devastating crime in its tracks. None of this, however, is likely to be part of the account that gets fixed in the public's mind. Instead the narrative will read: a Muslim did it, and therefore all Muslims are responsible and Muslim-Americans must be able to explain to us why he did it.

Mr Shahzad's story, of course, does not lend itself easily to stereotypes and clichés. Only recently had he become a part of the Muslim-American experience and on the face of it was not a "sleeper" who had lurked in the shadows for years in preparation for an opportune time to carry out an attack. To the contrary, the evidence suggests that he came from a well-to-do family in Pakistan, lived a relatively non-religious life until quite recently, and was extremely happy to be in the US.

In the past couple of years, Mr Shahzad appeared to change. It has been suggested that he was influenced by Anwar al Awlaki, an American radical who resides in Yemen - but that suggestion may be making its rounds on account of the fact that the Obama administration has reportedly authorised al Awlaki's assassination. Opposition to that decision runs high in the US and abroad. Mr Shahzad could have been influenced by events and people in Pakistan, too. He reportedly was in contact with the Pakistani Taliban and other militants in Pakistan. If true, his road began in Pakistan as a Pakistani - not as an American. That possibility has dismayed Pakistan's foreign minister, who insists that Mr Shahzad was an American, not a Pakistani.

If Mr Shahzad's formative influences are murky, so are his motives. It may be that like many Muslims, he believes that the West is guilty of crimes in the Muslim world, particularly after 9/11. Those inside the Muslim world feel powerless to protest because they live under regimes that deny political freedom and are supported by the US, and those outside like Mr Shahzad may believe they have an obligation to come to their aid. The result, wrote the US commentator Patrick Buchanan, is that we are being attacked over here (in the West) because we are over there (in the Muslim world).

Whatever turned out to motivate Mr Shahzad, there will undoubtedly be those who think that all we need to do is get Islamic scholars to issue more fatwas condemning terrorism. The reality, however, is that most Muslims couldn't care less about statements by one scholar or another. While religion plays a larger role in the lives of Muslims than in the lives of most westerners, it does not follow that religious leaders also do. By and large, they are not relevant to most Muslims.

That will not change until Muslim religious leaders communicate more effectively. Currently, most echo the widespread grievances of their followers and rabble-rouse but provide no concrete ways to address injustices. Or, they spout slogans like "Islam is peace". Neither response is adequate: the first lets the genie out of the bottle and the second pretends there is no bottle. Most of those Islamic scholars that offer a true alternative for change simply do not have the mechanisms to communicate their message to the masses and are thus unheard, despite their pedigree.

Naquib al Attas, the well-known Muslim philosopher from Malaysia, says Islam does not aim to create the good citizen but the good human being. That message is drowned out by those with the sensationalist modern media at their disposal. As the details of Mr Shahzad's life become clearer, commentators as usual will divide into three camps: those who blame an evil ideology masquerading as Islam; those who blame foreign policy; and those who blame pretty much everything else, including socio-economic factors. When we realise that all of them have a point but none of them are totally right, we may just get somewhere.

Dr HA Hellyer is fellow of the University of Warwick, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and Europe Fellow for the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. www.hahellyer.com