Unconventional Wisdom

By Salil Tripathi

The allegedly principal mastermind behind the abduction and killing of Daniel Pearl,the Wall Street Journal reporter, Sheikh Omar Saeed, is a British-born Pakistani.

Classmates of Sheikh Omar Saeed are surprised that he could have been responsible for such an abduction. In this, these classmates' response is similar to the responses of other classmates, who are similarly surprised to find that the Mohammed Atta they knew at a technical school in Hamburg, could be the same guy who rammed an airliner into the twin towers. But there are many parallels to these stories, as there are parallels linking people like Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, who converted to Islam later in life. In its broadest sense, these stories are about what globalization induced by migration does to people, when they are dislocated from their surroundings. The new immigrant brings a baggage of expectations with him; the old world views the newcomer suspiciously. And to accommodate the two views, the society adopts multicultural ideals without thinking through long term consequences.

Ideally, multiculturalism should not mean blanket non-interference in the affairs of a community, nor should it mean that the new immigrants must shed their past and become deracinated global citizens. As Jane Kramer argues in a recent issue of the New Yorker, western societies have developed liberal laws such that the best laws protect the worst among them. The traditional
liberal response has been that such protection is necessary, so that we can all enjoy our freedoms. Since September 11, politicians have been trying to take away some of those freedoms. But a reading of Sheikh Omar's story, and other stories, shows the complexities that cannot be dealt with in a cavalier manner.

Sheikh Omar Saeed was educated at that elite British institution, the public school, which is similar to American prep schools, with the difference that in Britain the students learn to cultivate a "propah" upper class accent that acts as a secret code, setting them apart from the hoi polloi. Part of a charmed circle, public schoolboys from Eton, Harrow and Rugby go on to Oxbridge institutions, and get the passport to enter the hallowed British phenomenon, called the old boys' club, which continues to dominate British public life. Once inside, the trajectory of your career can only go in one direction: upwards, unless you do something really stupid.

Sheikh Omar went to the London School of Economics after high school, but dropped out after a year. In his late adolescence he was exposed to propaganda about atrocities committed by governments against Muslims in Chechnya, Bosnia, and Kashmir. And then he followed a path that now appears like a well-trodden pilgrim's progress in the world of extremism -- to Afghanistan, a stint with the Taliban, in Pakistan, in Kashmir, working with shadowy organizations, masterminding abductions, committing occasional violent acts. He kidnapped western tourists in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. He was arrested; and he was one of the detainees the Indian government freed in the December 1999 Indian Airlines hijacking saga, which took the aircraft from Kathmandu to Kabul.

Upon release, Sheikh Omar came to Pakistan, and "rightly or wrongly", as he said in court the other day, concluded that the Pakistani administration's decision to support US interests in Afghanistan was flawed. And he sought revenge by kidnapping a reporter.

Many in Britain are apparently surprised that Sheikh Omar ended up the way he did: his school friends can't believe the turn his life took; his teachers are similarly astonished. But when placed alongside Mohammed Atta's story, and the stories of many of the hijackers of Sept 11, a discernible pattern emerges.

And that pattern is rooted in alienation. Young men, even with privileged upbringing in the West, feel lost in their prosperous surroundings. This happens to many young men, of course; and legions of teenagers, irrespective of ethnicity or culture, have experimented with drugs, alternate lifestyles, and relationships, to discover themselves.

These young men had distaste for these vices, and developed an interest in mosques. And not any mosques, but particular mosques, which carry a particularly vicious message, which breed resentment against the West, and convince the believers that the cities in which they live are nothing but urban agglomerations of ignorance. Koran has a word for it, Jahilia; the ignorant, pagan, polytheistic city before the word of God was revealed to Prophet Mohammed.

While this may seem peculiar to Islam, it isn't necessarily unique to it.Read the literature of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition; look at what Phyllis Schlafley says and what some of the more extreme proponents of the Right in the US say, and the similarity is breathtaking. There is
deep distaste for the world as it has emerged around us, where races mingle and women smoke and dance and drink and wear short dresses and kiss in public, and children are born outside marriage and the governments recognize those relationships, and so on. Shiv Sena activists who want to ban Valentine's Day in India; the Indian minister of information and broadcasting who wants to ban particular shows on TV, and outlaw women newscasters from wearing western-style jackets; the pro-Lifers who picket in front of abortion clinics; and the Ayatollahs who want to drape the women in purdahs -- they are part of the same subgroup of religious fundamentalists, who cannot relate to the modern world.

This is not to say that the modern world is without blemish. Yet, the majority of us learn to live with it; this minority wants to change it by force. The privileged among the discontented, like Sheikh Omar and Mohammed Atta, provide the leadership to the group of individuals who feel similarly dislocated. They go to places where the young gather, seeking a sense of identity and meaning in a western society which does not accept them wholeheartedly. In another fascinating piece in the New Yorker recently, the writer Jonathan Raban sees parallels between the declining housing estates in Britain where he grew up, where more fundamentalist and charismatic religions like Pentecostals tried to take hold, and the young Muslims in the West, who felt compeled to go to mosques in Finsbury Park and Hamburg, where clerics decried the prosperous world around them, and promised heaven, if the West is humiliated.

This phenomenon has emerged primarily because of discrimination, perceived and real, and failures of assimilation on both sides. Western societies are guilty of overlooking their own discriminatory practices, while forcing their customs upon the immigrants. For instance, French schools don't mind young Christian girls wearing the cross, but object to immigrant Muslim girls from North Africa wearing the veil. In Britain, an aggrieved Christian can sue a writer for blasphemy if the writer has criticized the Church (that he won't succeed is because of changing social mores), but British Muslims could not use Britain's blasphemy laws to sue Salman Rushdie when he wrote The Satanic Verses. (Britain lost a golden opportunity at that time: it should have cast its blasphemy law to the dustbin; instead it denied Muslims to use the blasphemy laws, saying the law only protects Christianity).

While that is real discrimination, there is also perceived discrimination: young people from the minorities find it much harder to make it in the job market. Although Asians (and in Britain Asians mean those from the Indian subcontinent) account for nearly three percent of the population, few of
them can be found in the upper echelons of the British establishment. Women, Chinese and Indians may run large corporations like Hewlett Packard, Avon, and McKinsey and Co., in the United States, and a Colin Powell and a Condoleezza Rice can determine US foreign policy and defense posture, and no one bats an eyelid. But the British cabinet is disproportionately white (as is the Opposition front bench). According to a recent magazine poll, of the 50 leading CEOs in Britain, only one is a woman (and she is an American). The only Asian was Rana Talwar of Standard Chartered Bank, but he was recently removed from office. The record elsewhere in Europe is similar, if not worse.

The British establishment would argue, with some reason, that there aren't enough qualified candidates from the minorities. The problem is acute for British Muslims at least partly because of their educational performance. According to government statistics, only 30% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi students do well at their school-leaving exams, compared with about 50% of whites and 62% of Indian students. (Almost all British Asians who call themselves Pakistani or Bangladeshi are Muslims; a substantial proportion of Indians are Hindu or Sikh).

Many British Muslim kids from deprived areas, such as Tower Hamlets in London, supplement their educational needs by going to Sunday schools run by mosques. There, they learn about Islam, and, are often exposed to ideas that clash with the prevailing British mores, such as the position of women in a society. Their mothers and elder sisters are often in purdah. According to the Economist magazine, that combination is lethal: on one hand, the state school system, which is often under-invested and failing in depressed areas, teaches the kids to get tough and question authority; on the other, the Islamic schools teach them obedience to a religious authority which is supranational. The lesson some draw is to question British authority and obey the traditional one. When these kids graduate and go looking for jobs, they find that the top positions are blocked off, and they are lucky to get any job. Unemployment runs high, forcing many to be on welfare. This allows the right wing parties to portray the immigrants as dole-fed ingrates. The situation is ripe for a riot, and riots Britain had much of during the summer of 2001, between white and Muslim youths, between the police and Muslims, in northern towns where jobs have vanished.

The dilemma for western governments is acute. On one hand, they must allow for multicultural freedom, as well as respect the privacy of the individual. On the other, they have to deal with a growing underclass which is resentful of the system. European leaders appear to be fundamentally incapable of handling this dilemma. In Britain, the Labor Government is considering adding more faith-based schools sponsored by the State, something the American Civil Liberties Union would lobby hard against, and quite rightly. But then Britain does not believe in the separation of the Church and the State, and nor does much of Europe. In Germany, on the other hand, a politician has been arguing that rather than allowing Indian engineers to migrate to Germany, the population should be encouraged to produce more German children, so that Germany does not have to depend on foreigners for software jobs. That itself has a sinister antecedent: Germany, after all, continues to make it easy for anyone with German ancestry, from anywhere in the world, to become a German national, even if he has lived generations abroad; but it makes it nearly impossible for the hundreds of thousands of Turks in Germany, from becoming German nationals, even though they have lived in Germany for two generations now.

The inconclusive debate about what multiculturalism means is at the root of this problem. If it means more British whites should eat chicken tikka masala, as they do, that's fine. But if it means Muslims in Britain can compel their daughter to marry young men from Pakistan, against their wishes, and in some cases, kill them if they disobey, that's clearly wrong. The spotty record of western institutions and governments in accommodating the minorities compounds the crisis.

So long as some European nations have laws in statute books that favor one faith over another; so long as religious symbols and imagery predominate the societies; so long as the Church and the State are one; it is going to be harder for western proponents to convince the minorities in their countries that their system is a fair one. So long as corporate boardrooms look white and male; so long as investment in schools in public housing estates remains puny; this resentment will simmer.

And it is in that environment that clerics will arrive, decrying the Jahilia of permissiveness and pornography, the lack of parental control and decline of spiritual authority around them, and promise the passport to heaven. The message is simple: the West, modernity, are enemies of the true faith. Fight it. That struggle will always appear tempting, and the lure of that passport to heaven will be more powerful than the passport that takes them only to the most elite old boys' club in London.