Do five Americans detained in Pakistan really prove a trend?

December 12, 2009

lahore mosqueThe arrest of five young Americans in Pakistan who according to Pakistani officials wanted to go to fight U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan has, perhaps predictably, increased fears of radicalisation within parts of the United States own Muslim community.

It follows the arrest in Chicago of David Headley, who police say scouted out targets for last year’s attack on Mumbai, and discussed with Pakistan-based militant groups plans for attacks in Denmark and India; and also comes after  last month’s Fort Hood shooting in which 13 people died.

U.S. newspapers have been quick to see a pattern.  “New Cases Test Optimism on Extremism by U.S. Muslims,” declared the New York Times. Or according to the L.A. Times headline: “U.S. sees homegrown Muslim extremism as rising threat.”

But is there really a new trend? And how is this supposedly measured? By actual incidents? On what basis can you argue that the Fort Hood shooting was part of a trend within the American Muslim community?

Or by the numbers of arrests made? If that were true, you would have to work out whether the arrests were also the result of better policing and improved coordination between different countries’ intelligence agencies.

Or by public perception and media attention? Given that the Obama administration has made Afghanistan and Pakistan its foreign policy priority, you would expect anything connected with those countries to get more attention.

But consider this. In the early years after 9/11, American police broke up a network of militants based in Virginia, some of whom had received weapons training in militant camps in Pakistan. The Virginia jihad network, linked like Headley to the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the Mumbai attack, was active long before this supposedly new trend in “homegrown Muslim extremism”.

In his book on his work as an investigating magistrate in France, Jean-Louis Bruguiere writes about how Willie Brigitte,  a Frenchman convicted of links to terrorism, trained in a militant camp in Pakistan in the company of two Americans and two Britons. The two Americans, he writes, were of Pakistani origin. All underwent weapons training in a Lashkar-e-Taiba camp in Pakistan’s Punjab province in 2001/2002 — in other words long before the supposedly new trend.

By contrast, the five Americans, also from Virginia, apparently failed to make much headway in their alleged attempt to join the jihad in Pakistan. According to a Pakistani security official, they had first visited a madrasa linked to the Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group in the southern city of Hyderabad, but the school turned them away. The  five then tried to contact the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba,  in Lahore. They failed there because they had no guarantor, the official said.

This is not to suggest that Pakistan-based militant groups pose less of a threat than they did six or seven years ago — although the report that the Americans were turned away suggests they may be under greater scrutiny than before.

But it does mean we need to think very carefully before subscribing to the idea of a new trend among American Muslims –  all the more since such attempts at establishing patterns could encourage what Dawn columnist Ayesha Siddiqa calls an unimaginative and dangerous narrative pitting Islam against  the rest.

According to this blogger at Changing Up Pakistan, “I find it disconcerting that we cry, ‘witch!’ with near reckless abandon before all the facts have been revealed. I also find it sad that the Muslim-American community has to constantly be on the defensive, releasing immediate statements in the aftermath of such developments, initiating campaigns to educate Americans about Islam.”

Or as Ali Eteraz writes more forcefully:  “There is no need for one Muslim to condemn the crimes of another. Collective responsibility cannot, and should not, be accepted. Where one accepts collective responsibility one opens the door to collective punishment. Are Muslims individuals? Or are they one singular marionette that pirouettes each time its string is pulled?”

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