This was in 2009 in Islamabad. I was working as an in-house counsel for the Competition Commission of Pakistan when a top private school in the capital asked me to coach their students in competitive debating. I had done my fair share of public speaking and I have always thought that everyone can be fairly good at it — as long as they are willing to step out of their comfort zone. The opportunity to interact with younger minds always excites me (and the extra money never hurts) so I signed up for the job.
In the third week of my assignment, I was talking to a highly intelligent 14 year old student of the school. This young fellow had grown up mostly in the United States and had only recently moved back home. His father was a finance expert and his mother a doctor. During a break from debating I asked him if he had thought about what he wanted to study after high school. “Medicine and science”, came the cocksure reply. “Why?” I asked. I will never forget the serious look on his face when he said this next thing: “Only because I want to come up with a medicine that will kill all Jews.”
I am not easily speechless — trust me on that. In fact, I am almost never speechless. But this was one of those rare moments where I took about half a minute gathering my thoughts on how to respond. Unsure of myself, I asked him why he wanted to kill anybody. “Because they hate Islam”, the little Dr Evil explained. I then asked him if he ever had any Jewish friends during his time in the US. And he answered that, of course, he had many Jewish friends but the religious cause was greater.
This was not a madrassa schooled child with uneducated parents wallowing in poverty. This was a highly intelligent child from the upper middle class (if not the elite) with highly educated parents. They entertained friends (including foreign diplomats) at their home from time to time.
A part of me told me to forget this as a joke — but there is nothing funny about a 14 year old growing up with dreams of killing people. If you live in Pakistan, you know damn well that anyone talking like this is not joking. It is not as if they are actually going to implement those plans but that they are imbued with such repulsive thoughts is in itself a cause for shame and worry — for all of us. Teaching public speaking and later Jurisprudence/Legal Philosophy has enabled me to lecture at various schools in Punjab and Islamabad from time to time. This includes Beaconhouse, LUMS, Kinnaird College for Women (yes, I know, you are hung up on that last one. Get over it).
The 14 year old Dr Evil was just one among many examples of young people where hate for “the other” and an unquestioning bigoted zeal for their “own” defined their outlook on life. I can name multiple instances where my students (representing some of the best educational institutions in this country) expressed views that justify, if not celebrate, violence. What characterises such views is a “victim complex” where they see themselves, this country and their religion (Islam) as under threat from “the others”.
The 9/11 hijackers, Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Ahmed Omar Sheikh etc were not suffering from extreme poverty. These were people who benefited from a decent (and often high-quality) education and used the analytical tools they learned to further their agenda of murder and violence.
What sets them apart from the rest of us is not money or even religiosity but a distorted worldview where they take it upon themselves to overthrow a system through violence. After that violence creates its own agency so the chain of responsibility becomes conveniently thin as it moves along. All you have to do is teach a thousand people enough hatred and brain-wash them. The violence that each of them will perpetrate in groups or individually is not something you have to plan. It is very similar to learning any other marketing skill — once you learn it, you can do whatever you want with it. Except that these bigoted individuals use everything at their disposal to kill and maim thousands of innocents across the globe — and also within Pakistan.
No news story that identifies terrorist master-minds as educated middle class citizens should surprise us. Look at the level of hate and the victim mentality that is pervasive in this country. Look around you and count the number of people who justify violence — against America, Shias, Jews, Israel, Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus etc. And then also notice their anger at the plight of Rohingya community as a tool to perpetrate more hatred. What has happened in Myanmar needs to be condemned in the strongest terms — but there is a mindset out there that will only use it to spread a particular message: Us versus them.
Pakistan still has a very delusional mindset when it comes to evaluating terrorism. We still think that everyone who believes in stoning women, forcing people to grow beards, slitting throats in the public square in the interest of “justice” are people who live in abject poverty and are ignorant about the rest of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take the death of Salmaan Taseer as an example. He was killed in cold blood — and Pakistan was divided that night like never before. No shortage of people, and I mean educated people, justified the killing.
The evil we are trying to fight lives in our midst — not just in mountains of tribal areas. It sits in our classrooms, recruits from our mosques and uses social media extremely well. Thus, we would do well to remember that eventually this is a battle for the “hearts and minds” and not speedy punishments through military courts or operations cleaning up a city by the sea.
That 14 year old I mentioned at the beginning would be almost 20 now. And I do not know what he will do with his life. What I do know is that he will remain susceptible to the musings of a radical cleric unless we fight back with a counter-narrative. For my part I did try putting him on debate teams that were supporting motions which questioned his political beliefs. But that was not enough. I moved on, so did he. And none of us have done enough.