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VIEW: Faisal Shahzad — the (un) true back story

By Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, April 30, 2011

The visiting media (excavation) team who rifled through Faisal Shahzad’s past had hit a brick wall last year. Because he is a naturalised American citizen and the son of a senior Pakistani air force officer, the foreign press must have been just as baffled as their Pakistani counterparts. And since they found little of value in these archaeological expeditions, they gave their terrorist a back story to go with the popular narrative. Putting up the failed Times Square bomber’s upbringing on trial alongside his present probably made it easier to explain this anomaly. If the world they fabricated out of fantasy and myth appeared alien to Pakistanis back home, it is probably because it was.

Faisal, who went through the system without triggering red flags, was depicted as a zombie being drilled in violent Islam and fed anti-western lies as a child, getting in and out of fancy cars followed by a trail of nannies, raised with hate in his heart and murder firmly planted in his subconscious.

To many of us it seemed like they just plopped Mr Shahzad in front of a green screen and ran the standard issue background. But he should not be let off that easy. Fortunately, these fanciful versions can be countered with some cold hard facts. Take for instance the claim that, “Mr Shahzad’s generation grew up in a Pakistan where alcohol had been banned and Islam had been forced into schools and communities as a doctrine and national glue.”

They got the alcohol part right. That is about all.

The New York Times (NYT) asserted that “his school, located on a military base, taught the same rigid curriculum — with an anti-western slant and a strict form of Islamic studies — imposed nationally by General Zia” (‘For Times Sq Suspect, Long Roots of Discontent’, NYT, May 15, 2010).

Wrong again.

It is not just the foreign press that went off course. A week earlier Professor Hoodbhoy had suggested the same thing: “He typifies the young Pakistani who grew up in the shadow of Ziaul Haq’s hate-based education curriculum. The son of a retired air vice marshal, life was easy ...but at some point the toxic schooling and media tutoring must have kicked in” (May 8, 2010).

Had they actually seen this hate-based curriculum/toxic schooling with an anti-western slant and a strict form of Islamic studies in action, they would have been sorely disappointed.

Students ended up believing, among other things, that Pakistan won the 1965 war, that India did not like us very much and the world did. And something about ancient civilisations. Did it have a distinct pro-Pakistan slant? Yes. Did it promote a vicious brand of Islam commonly associated with madrassas? Absolutely not. Besides, Pakistan was fighting a covert war with the allies during Zia’s tenure, so anti-westernism was not an issue. Not then.

‘Outdated, ineffective, insipid, boring’ — there may be a ton of adjectives to describe the educational system but ‘hate-based’ and ‘toxic’ would not be one of them. (These two words do fit the post-9/11 environment though). Several others had gone through the same bland process and come out sane. Faisal’s old neighbours did not see anything for the simple reason that there was nothing to see; ditto for old classmates.

The Pakistan Air Force is known for its liberal outlook and moderate stance and its education system, while not perfect, does reflect these values. The media, on the other hand, was state-controlled till the 1990s and did project a lovely biased view of the world. The 1980s generation was treated to images of innocent Kashmiris getting brutalised by ‘those Indians’. But mostly they watched dignitaries arriving or leaving on a daily basis. It would be years before they would get to see both sides of the coin or be free to challenge the old order.

The same NYT article that ‘demonised’ Faisal’s schooling also touched upon his spoiled brat status. “As the son of a senior military officer, Mr Shahzad was swaddled in privilege, tended to by chauffeurs, servants and armed guards in an insular world made up almost exclusively of military families.”

True. And false!

The world they refer to is insular and in the 1980s and 90s without cell phones and internet it was even more so. That being said, these walls kept politics and fundamentalism from seeping in but did not prevent its inhabitants from reaching out. Not only were they exposed to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, they also held a broader worldview.

And contrary to popular belief, military life is not an all expense paid trip to wonderland. The privileged lifestyle depicted in the newspaper accounts makes it all seem so ‘feudal lordish!’ Military families are not born with silver spoons. These perks come with a price.

This is not the Upper East Side. Life in the armed forces is generally perceived to be a joyride for families but while it may end on a high note it certainly does not begin with one. I cannot deny the chauffeurs, servants and armed guards. They come with the house, but only for the top echelon. No doubt the final stretch is comfortable but these people have paid their dues off camera.

Yet none of this had any bearing on the events of May 1, 2010. Faisal, who is currently serving a life sentence, spent more than a decade in the US. When he turned, it was in spite of, not because of his sheltered background and American education. He represents the new face of terrorism.

Images Courtesy of: http://www.pasadenaisd.org/MediaProductions/stack%20of%20textbooks.jpg

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