Just days before the Eid ul-Fitr holidays, I found myself conducting spontaneous participatory research on the jihadi courtship process down the street from a police checkpoint, in the bustling H-9 sector’s Sunday Market of Islamabad. Standing face-to-face with two tactful recruiters, I presented myself as utterly ignorant of the tenets of Islam.
The first recruiter— short, bearded and wearing a light blue salwar-kameez— approached me, just as I had finished tipping an elderly tokriwala for carrying my groceries to the car. Without so much as a ‘hello’ or ‘salam’, he opened speech in rapid fire. My helper darted in fright. Alarmed, I too felt the urge to dodge the verbiage. Instead, I chose to engage the stranger.
Politely, I requested the meaning of a certain word he used. His dark eyes flickered with bewilderment (or was it rage?), then softened. In truth, I was straining more to understand his racy Urdu than the religious figure about whom he spoke— whose name I failed to catch. But this he didn’t realize. And I preferred it that he view me as a youthful simpleton asking an honest question, rather than comprehend I was a young man of foreign origin— a prime target for ransom kidnapping. Having mentally accommodated my “unholy” naivete, he proceeded to speak at length about the prophet.
I was growing impatient. The summer heat was competing with the scrawny manin annoying me. He didn’t even bother to introduce himself by name, other than to say his madrasa was located somewhere around the corner. He was clearly losing my attention. So he switched rhetorical gears.
“Does your mother live with you?” he asked, point-blank.
“Does your mother live under the same roof with you?”
“Haan — Yes,” I shot back.
“The poison in your heart comes from your loved ones!” he proclaimed, leaning in. His breath brushed my ear and—instantly— he punctured an invisible heart, my heart, in the air with his fingertip.
What is that supposed to mean? This was getting weirder. Now he was too close, his back awkwardly bent and small face poking into mine. The poetic salvo was intended for effect. But one doesn’t really expect to be accosted in the street and spoken to in this manner Still, I decided I hadn’t heard him correctly.
“Jee? — Pardon me?”
“Your heart roils with the poison from your family!”
From his affected mannerisms, I sensed he believed himself to be in full control of our situation, and that because he was speaking religion with a seemingly guileless youth, the provincial strings that made a puppet of my thoughts were tied comfortably to the tip of his tongue. But he was wrong. He was addressing an ex-stage actor from New York, who was now an analyst, involved in scaling the instability in the region— fueled by men like him.
Intuitively, I imagined I was caught by an unseen hook, helpless, rising skywards… For the word “poison” he uttered “dung,” which shot through his fingertip and stuck inside me, throbbing with every break in my pulse. Was I so transparent? This was voodoo. His piercing finger encircled my mind like an opiate— No, but it is true. I was hurting, exposed and, yes… sick with shame. My ventricles coagulated; I was growing defensive…
The yelling, the arguments between my mother and I, would always lead nowhere. With every attempt to fight for my juvenile freedoms and escape her fearful protection, I would bellow harsh words that only reflected how trapped she made me feel. But my rage fell on deadened ears… always. Sooner or later, I found myself kicking stones on a lonely street, or buzzing high to oblivion in a friend’s car, at nightfall…
But, of course, I was simply delving in make-believe. Upon hearing his provocation again, I was yanked into clarity. I was looking straight into the eyes of a man who believed himself as capable of peering through mine. What he failed to grasp, however, was that the dingy place he hoped to rile in me had been resolved long ago. Yes, I had grown up. For in its place was certitude, a blissful calm. And so despite his aggressive inquiry, I was aglow with ease.
“Acha! —Aha!” I exploded in mirth, nearly slapping his back!
In my playful mind’s eye, I was close to tears. I needed help. He had spotted the inky effluent, and I wanted it out. Could he help me? The poison began to spread. I was growing angry—that he would be so invasive—and humiliated—that I could be seen through so easily. My heart began to race; the blood was rushing to my face…
His partner stepped forward.
“Is ki baat kabura nehin bnana — Please, don’t take his words to heart,” said this other.
Now, the gravity of the situation struck me. This was a concerted effort of a psychological nature. The two men were unrelenting. It was better I leave— suddenly, my cell phone rang. An unknown number. I hesitated.
“Your phone call can wait, but not God.”
I observed their expectant faces— one with hollow eyes, the other scarred by acne, or was it chicken pox? What a choice! Chafed by their entreaties, I turned, received the call and opened my car door to exit. But not before some religious literature had been thrust into my hand.
According to observers, the normal recruitment demographic of jihadi fighters in Pakistan is male, between the ages of 15 and 30 years. This period in men’s lives is a crucial one, for it is when they tend to be most susceptible to a range of nefarious influences, as many seek to alleviate their suffering— induced by the perception that no one understands them— and resolve a festering existential crisis. Given also the trend in recreational drug intake and social taboos surrounding psycho-social care, respectively, young men are also more prone to emotional volatility and violence and lack constructive outlets for their interpersonal frustrations. In fact, for many, without due care and attention, it becomes a life-long problem.
What appeared to be happening before me was an attempt at courtship, with the hope that, in time, a managed wedge between my family and I would provide the desired opening for indoctrination. Once my innermost hope for requited love and understanding were dashed, in steps they would feed reclusive ideas on the transitory nature of the physical world, the glamour of jihad and the promise of heaven.
The panacea for my pain is in God’s hands, I would be told, as was the case with all the fiery “martyrs of Islam.” Under the men’s tutelage, “His merciful hands” would appear to be awaiting my final hour, while my acts— violent, targeting civilians or symbols of state— would be spun as manifestations of the strength of my belief.
“There are things that one should question and there are things that one should never question. This document falls among the latter,” begins the pamphlet, titled “Ehd-nama”, in Arabic script. (The Urdu translation below the text throughout is literal, with lousy syntax.)
I kept some of the leaflets and rejected the rest. I compromised in my feigned act to regain a sense of control. Inside, I was seething with disgust— both, at the gall of the men in their acting as shamelessly as they pleased, in full public view, and the broader destructive work their madrasa is unquestionably involved in.
As I reversed my car, the first man started banging on my window— boldly, desperately— nearly yelling that I accept the remaining literature. Still on the phone, I was livid; I tore my sunglasses off and stared him down. So he stepped to the back and began motioning for me to reverse— I slammed the brakes and eyed him in the mirror, shaking my finger:Our business is over. The two men concluded their operation had run aground and departed into the crowd. I sighed in relief and continued on my way— and with the phone call. It was my property dealer.
Indeed, sometimes I do feel that my family does not understand me. But never would I allow that feeling to escalate to a point where another may exploit my pain and manipulate my thoughts and actions. That much I possess in terms of self-control, self-respect and love for my family and fellow man.
Jihadi indoctrination in Pakistan— or the rationale for, say, being dispatched to Afghanistan or Indian-occupied Kashmir, committing a directed act of suicide by bombing and killing scores of innocent lives in the process— feeds off youth heart-break and the experiences of broken lives. This is precisely why, for their sake, we must continue to listen and engage our youth. Ignoring their silent shame is not an option.