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Book Review: Personal Histories of Choices: Documenting Renunciation

Published in Daily Times / Dec 15, 2012

Published Under the Title: First Rule of Jihad Club

Thank you Gulmina for the Review copy

Authors: Gulmina Bilal Ahmad, Dr. Anika Ahmed,
Yahya Ahmad, Zulfiqar Haider, Hamza Khan Swati
& a friend who wants to remain anonymous


Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

(The Print Ed has an error - hope they fix it in the online Ed, first para 3rd line that now says 'jihadists are willing' throws my sentence off balance. The 2nd Para has a misprint. not tnatives, natives!)

Unlike the first, second, third rule of fight club (you do not talk about fight club) – retired jihadists willing to open up about their past lives do exist. A dedicated group of researchers bent on tracing the path to radicalization needed no divining rod to identify people who have dabbled in jihad at some point in their lives.

This compilation of ‘confessions’ features interviews with fifteen former terrorists hiding out in the open and not as one would think, skulking in the shadows. Now such a premise might not surprise those who tend to herd all the natives next to the same ridiculous profiling machine or use Abbottabad-gate to promote Pakistan as a comfortable retreat for the Most Wanted.

Before they say aha, they should know that this list of deserters does not carry names of high profile targets. In fact it does not carry any names at all. But their testimonies still matter, especially after watching the diligent interviewers salvage archive footage of an odd politician and low level military men, happily partaking of the jihadist pie. They may not be architects of major attacks; many have never seen combat. And some doubled as agent provocateurs in the late 1990’s.

This is a well worn trail frequented by highly regarded analysts, diplomats and writers. Images of Cold War Mujahideen morphing into post 9/11 archetype adorn its pathways. The book offers a fresh new vantage point that allows readers to gaze upon the secretive world of terror from the inside.

The region is increasingly susceptible to jihadist influences and the odd cases of kidnapping and coercion aside – the majority of subjects arrived at their destination via the ‘Holy’ gateway created few decades ago. This exercise widens the search parameter from the troubled North to the urban centres. The monster from the frame can be anyone, from the friendly neighbourhood electrician to the quiet looking village teacher hailed as the pillar of his community. This is the first of many bombshells.

Though these wayward sheep have renounced that way of life - not all of them are repentant; in some case they are sleepers biding their time, a few cheerfully admit that they are simply ‘on a break’. Seeing the world through their custom made, ‘holier than thou’, splintered glass is nevertheless instructive.

The book neatly divides the case files into three parts: influence of hearsay, media and community. The team had unprecedented access to the ex-militant community and even the most recalcitrant among them had something valuable to share. They map out their individual journeys from all parts of Pakistan, unveiling much more than the naive face behind the cold mask.

Their guarded invitation opens up the portal to terror-ville, albeit briefly. The momentary glimpses yield enough data points to assess both sides of the elusive picture, from the roots of terror to the poisonous yield. These excursions may be harrowing but they offer unique insight into the extremist psyche using private channels outsiders are generally not privy to. Besides capturing the insiders off guard, they also expose the sham pillars on which such cult like movements have been mounted.

The abundance of training camps (that don’t exist and years of social conditioning ensures that the casting call has steady supply of recruits on hand. That these also double as summer camps for youngsters seeking ways to channel pent up energy comes as a revelation. It also raises some irksome questions. With a little effort the researchers found these foot soldiers. That their masterminds continue to flourish under the world’s most fearsome intelligence agencies watch will bother many.

The change in vantage point adds dynamic layers to an evolving narrative. That everyone is susceptible to the jihad bug. That they don’t all hail from drone strike central; areas around Islamabad can double as training camps. That it can run in the family. And that they are lured away as much by boredom, as by pushy moms, peer pressure, by a steady diet of misinformation, or in some case horror stories dating back to pre-partition days.

Each encounter leaves readers wondering about the gravitational pull of the countless organizations (the book does not divulge names probably because they do not exist!) dotted across the countryside.

The assortment of spotlights trained on this region to scrutinize these shifting plates is blinding. Sometimes they can miss the obvious. This document lets the sinister stereotypes tell their ‘tale of woe’ without any editorializing. These snatches of conversations underscore the popularity of the jihad-based sales pitch. Also, the reasons for their disillusionment should cut through the perpetual fog of war & haze of Taliban/Al-Qaeda propaganda.

This study is part ‘expose’ part ‘wake up call’ and part ‘cry for help’ quietly establishing the sprawling scale of the problem while providing important context for the growing number of conversions. The prose may be a tad unpolished; the closing loses the academic tone presenting its trenchant arguments on the terror debate; ‘we have long crossed the Rubicon of passive debate on the genesis and birth of this radical mindset. ’

Whether they are victims of a questionable State policy or recipients of clever indoctrination campaigns; little is needed to invoke the latent jihadist gene. And that should be a cause for serious concern.

The subjects are young, impressionable with their moral compass stuck on ‘sanctioned Holy War’. Their brief dalliance with terror and subsequent renouncement drags an important aspect of this conflict to the fore. The counter-terrorism strategy is intent on clearing the land of militants but thus far there are few indications that it is as focused on clearing up the rubble of ignorance and bigotry steadily accumulating since before 9/11. ‘Documenting Renunciation’ marks the source of original fault-lines that make the region so vulnerable.

Price: Rs. 1500
Pages: 56

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  1. Pages 56 and price 1500? Are the papers made of papyrus?

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