The Jihadi Mindset
By Dr Tariq Rahman
27 April, 2007
The Dawn, Pakistan
two incidents have sent shockwaves among ordinary Pakistanis as well
as western observers. In the first one, militants, using the name of
Islam, burst into a school in Tank and tried to persuade students to
go with them for jihad. The principal of the school resisted only to
be abducted from his house and released, after being traumatised in
the process, two days later.
In the second, women students
of the Jamia Hafsa, a madressah in Islamabad, tried to close down video
and audio shops and then, in a mood of defiant vigilante militancy,
kidnapped three women on charges of running a brothel. Now, they have
set up a court to legitimise vigilante action.
We keep hearing, with deepening
dismay, of bombings, suicide bombings and fighting in the name of Islam
by militants who are called by various names including 'jihadis'. But
what is a jihadi? How does he (or she) think? What circumstances or
ideas create the jihadi mindset? These are questions which bother most
Psychologist Sohail Abbas
has provided answers to them in a book entitled 'Probing the Jihadi
Mindset' (2007). The book has been published by the National Book Foundation
and is easy to read. Although it is a survey, the answers are accessible
to the ordinary reader with no specialised training. The survey is based
on 517 jihadis divided into the Peshawar group (198 people) and the
Haripur group (319 people). Both groups comprise men ranging between
of 17 and 72 years. These men went to Afghanistan to fight against the
Americans after 9/11.
In the Peshawar sample, however,
some were already present in Afghanistan. The defining feature common
to both groups is that they believed and participated, or wanted to
contribute to, in what they believed was a jihad against foreign, non-Muslim,
Most jihadis (74.1 per cent)
were below 30 years of age and many were from Punjab. The majority came
from Pashto-speaking backgrounds (48 per cent) while the percentage
of Pashto-speakers in the population of Pakistan is only 15.4. This
implies that the Pashtuns have been affected most by religious fervour.
However, in this case they
may have joined the war because the Taliban, who are Pashtuns, were
under attack. Urdu-speaking Mohajirs, whose share in the population
is only 7.6 per cent, contributed 10.6 per cent of jihadis. This means
that, despite the ethnic appeal of the MQM, the urban areas of Sindh
are still prone to potential religious violence.
The jihadis were not completely
uneducated. Whereas the illiterate population of Pakistan is 45.19 per
cent, among the jihadis 44.3 per cent were illiterate. In the Haripur
sample, however, only 23.2 per cent were illiterate.
Even more interesting is
the fact that, contrary to common perception, most jihadis had not been
educated in madressahs. While 35.5 per cent did attend madressahs they
stayed there mostly less than six months (indeed merely 14 per cent
stayed beyond that period). In the Haripur sample, 54.5 per cent had
received no religious education while 45.5 per cent had - but again,
even those who did receive religious education received very little
of it. In short, as Dr Sohail Abbas concludes: 'They were recruited
largely from the mainstream of the Pakistan population. Their literacy
level is above the average of the general population'.
This, indeed, is what reports
on 9/11 tell us. Those who join radical Islamic groups are predominantly
educated in technology and science. They do not necessarily belong to
madressahs though, considering that the proportion of these religious
seminaries to state educational institutions is so small, there is a
proportionately large number of madressah students in radical Islamic
circles in Pakistan.
According to the survey,
48.5 per cent of jihadis said that their families were more religious
than those around them. However, they were not motivated for jihad by
the family. In most cases (59.6 per cent in Haripur and 39.7 in Peshawar),
they were motivated by religious leaders.
The peer group also had a
strong influence and, of course, there was self-motivation. Indeed,
not surprisingly, the jihadis saw themselves as the most religious member
of the family. Some tried to change the family's religious orientation
stopping others from going to the tombs of saints because they believed
it was forbidden.
Another interesting aspect
of the jihadis' attitude towards their families is that they did not
bother about hurting or worrying their families. Nor, in the case of
married men, did they think as to who would look after them. In short,
ideology was so strong in their minds so as to break family bonds which
are otherwise powerful in Pakistan.
These people also appeared
to be less sociable than other Pakistanis. About 49 per cent reported
limited social contacts. Maybe, in the absence of places for socialisation,
the mosque filled in that gap in their lives. In any case, according
to the survey, they were more emotionally unstable (29 per cent) than
ordinary men (only nine per cent). Villagers, it appears, are more stable
than the inhabitants of urban slums possibly because the villages are
still rooted in a strong kinship network and tradition. In the city
one is living in a void and feels rootless.
Most jihadis (65.5 per cent)
were not sure that Osama bin Laden was involved in 9/11 but were sure
that the Americans attacked Afghanistan because they wanted to destroy
Islam (79.3 per cent) and that Islam was in danger (69 per cent). They
wanted the glory of Islam from jihad (73.7 per cent) and many (39.4
per cent) also wanted to harm the Americans in the process. They had
strong views and, in most cases, these remained unchanged although they
were jailed in the
The book contains eight stories
based on the lives of jihadis whose names have been changed to hide
their real identities. These make for touching as well as harrowing
reading. Basically, these are confused men without much knowledge of
international or national events. They live lives of appalling misery
and deprivation. Religion and, or the opinion of significant others,
give value and meaning to their lives.
Jihadis lack entertainment
and are fed by prejudices by their school textbooks, TV, radio and friends.
Then, at some stage in life, they are persuaded to join the jihad by
a religious figure, friend or relative. This gives them fresh enthusiasm
and a new meaning in life. Instead of being treated like the scum of
the earth the way poor people are treated in Pakistan, they are treated
like heroes - even if it is temporarily.
Moreover, they are convinced
that, whether they live or die, lose or win, they will have an exalted
other-worldly reward as well as high reputation in their reference group
in this world. Thus they risk everything to join jihadi movements. The
survey contains much more which is of interest to those who want to
understand Islamic extremism and militancy in Pakistan.
Perhaps the risk-taking attitude
of the Jamia Hafsa students as well as the militant aggression of the
Pakistani Taliban will become clear if we use these insights to study
them. This survey needs wider dissemination and serious study by all
concerned citizens who value tolerance, peace and democracy in Pakistan.
But what are we to do now
that vigilante groups have started operating in the name of Islamisation
even in Islamabad? In my opinion, the press and civil society must protest
in clear terms that nobody can take the law into their own hands. The
government, which cracks down on protests of other kinds, must impose
the law on these vigilante groups too.
However, for doing so the
government must have the moral legitimacy which comes out of fairness
and strict adherence to the law itself. It is obvious to citizens that
the law is bent and the judiciary insulted whenever it suits the rulers.
For a long time the officials of the state - military, intelligence
agencies, police and civilian bureaucracy - have been thrashing up ordinary
citizens whenever they have annoyed them. Is this the way for creating
respect for the law?
If evenly and fairly applied,
the law is there to protect everybody including madressah students.
For it is among them that people are picked up and sent to unknown and
illegal prisons; it is for people of their kind that the Guatanamo Bay
kind of horror holes are made.
The humanitarians of the
world have a big struggle ahead of them - the struggle to re-establish
the rule of law, habeas corpus, civilised values of tolerance and peace
and democratic freedom with full freedom to minorities and dissidents
for all. In this struggle, besides a strong and fair government, only
a good educational system teaching humanitarian values can help.
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