Paradise lost: Two tales of radicalization

Raza Rumi narrates two tales of radicalization (published in TFT March 2014).

Writing about domestic help is distasteful as it means Pakistan’s obsession with ‘servants’ crosses the comfort zones of living rooms and travels into the printed lines. With much trepidation I plan to tell the readers about my own experience with a young helper who arrived from Pakistan’s Hazara area into my home a few years ago. Jabbar, a school dropout, had ambitions from day one and I spent the first few months convincing him that to liberate himself from a life-long career of domestic drudgery he would need to complete his education.

In my great moment of overcoming the middle class guilt, I found Jabbar a tutor and his formal education was resumed. He completed his Matriculation and Intermediate diplomas as a private school and did reasonably well given his circumstances and initial schooling. These days, he is enrolled as a graduate student and hopefully will find a better job than servicing my household needs.

Two years ago, he randomly asked me about a letter in my mail from someone using the address of Rabwah – the town where the Ahmadiyya (pejorative in Pakistan is Qadiyani) community is clustered.  A kind gentleman had written to me appreciating an essay of mine on minority rights that includes Ahmadis now as Pakistani state declared them as infidels in 1974. Jabbar was perturbed that someone from Rabwah had written to me. When I explained the contents of the letter, he advised me that reading anything from a Qadiani or a Mirzai was a sin. I was cautious to explain that discrimination on the basis of faith was unfair and even unIslamic. However, he remained unconvinced.

Jabbar has not read much of what I write but my foray into television has caused much anxiety to him. In the last eighteen months or so, he has been asking me questions straight from a Pakistan studies textbook that obviously has been part of his ‘education’. From the evil ‘Hindu’ to the plotter ‘Jew’ or the martial ideology of Pakistan I have come into a contact with a segment of ‘real world’ into my own inner sanctum. Recently, Jabbar told me that you must be thinking that I am a Taliban as I support Imran Khan and will always vote for him.

He advised me that reading anything from a Qadiani or a Mrizai was a sin

The most disturbing part of this ‘education’ has been complete disconnect from the past. Bacha Khan is a suspect historical figure for he was ‘anti-Pakistan’ and he politely asked me why I have been screaming in favour of Malala targeting her killers. According to Jabbar, Malala is part of an international conspiracy and was never shot. I try to change the views, show him books, articles, pictures but then I give up. Not that he is blind or totally unreceptive.

Such has been the impact of education –Pakistan Studies and Islamiyat– that the only version of our ‘religion’ is Sunni. Over the years, he has also learnt that Caliphate is the ideal form of governance.

As a counterpoint to Jabbar’s experience another domestic helper Abdul– from a small village in Central Punjab–shunned my advice to study further. Hailing from a shrinegoer family he regularly visited the village dargah and ensured that I paid for the Sufi rituals such as purchasing a shiny, embroidered chadar for the tomb, and contribution to langar. Even otherwise Abdul showed much less signs of intolerance.

Unlike Jabbar, watching Bollywood films was not a guilty pleasure. As an inheritor of the plural, secular Punjabi lived culture, I came to the sorry conclusion that lack of formal education (Abdul left school in grade 7 and started to work with his father) prevented soft radicalisation of his mind. But I have been encouraging him to read and always prodding (for my own selfish ends) that he improve his numeracy and literacy skills. After all, he helps with household chores and pays off the utility bills among other tasks.

Enter Facebook and Abdul’s kaleidoscope of life has also undergone a shift. It all started when he asked for a new mobile phone and I, once again driven by own contradictions and ideological battle with domestic ‘servants’, got him a mobile set with advanced browsing technology. With all the competitive telecom packages, access to internet is no longer an exclusive opportunity.

Social media does not require great reading or writing expertise. Videos, infographics, memes and music can entertain and occupy users. Abdul joined Facebook when I had taken a sojourn to Manila attempting to rejoin my development career at the Asian Development Bank. So on a humid evening when I was taking a walk, I received a friend request from him. As I checked, it was him and secretly I smiled at the empowering, equalizing nature of technology. Photos were an added amusement as Abdul had been posting a daily image of himself, his wife and family.

I resigned from the development job and returned to Pakistan in mid 2012. Back in the familiar settings and chaotic Pakistan, I could not help notice that Abdul had not mentioned visiting the dargah in his village nor asked me extra allowance for the rituals at the Urs and other Sufi celebrations. I forgot about this until one day he was playing a recording by a hard-boiled cleric on his phone. When I asked him, he praised the cleric and told me how great his views were. Visiting dargahs was kosher as long as ‘shirk’ (challenging the oneness of Allah) was avoided. Now this popular cleric is the same ‘scholar’ who had attributed the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods to the sins of Pakistanis. To know more I read up on him and was shocked at the smart-radicalisation undertaken by him using the potential of the technology to the fullest.

I have been playing Qawwalis in the car and at home. Also, taking Abdul to the Lahore shrines that I regularly visit. But I am not sure if that is as powerful as the idea of a Paradise which awaits for being a puritanical Muslim. I do not wish to generalize about other young Pakistanis or how radicalization is spreading in our ‘pure’ land. I am simply worried. In recent years, I have seen two concrete examples of extreme ideas penetrating the minds of twentysomethings.

Sometimes, I do feel I live in another country. Not the place where I grew up nor the “future” I had imagined when I was younger and perhaps naive.

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