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Understanding The Jihadi Mindset

By Dr Tariq Rahman

27 April, 2007
The Dawn, Pakistan

Recently 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 of us.

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 the ages
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, aggressors.

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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