In the aftermath of Mashal Khan’s lynching, it’s vital that we re-examine some of our assumptions about religious extremism in our society. We can assume no longer that extremism and violence are the territory of the uneducated or the lower classes. The men who beat Mashal Khan to death were educated; university employees and students and even a political figure or two were included in the FIRs.
Another case has surfaced that challenges our assumptions even more: that of a young medical student called Naureen Leghari. Ms. Leghari, who was studying to become a doctor at Liaquat Medical University in Hyderabad, Sindh, had been reported missing by her father in a suspected kidnapping. Then it emerged that a terrorist had been killed in an encounter in Lahore, and that Leghari’s student card and her father’s NIC were found at the scene.
A woman was also arrested at the scene. Soon the reports said that this was the missing Naureen Leghari, and that she’d been married to the man killed in the encounter, Ali Tariq. It’s now reported that she was radicalized, and traveled to Syria to join IS, then came back to Pakistan and went to Lahore as part of a militant network. Meanwhile, Leghari’s family is making no statements to the press, but a formal identification of the woman in question is to come soon.
There are people who find it unthinkable that a young Sindhi woman could become a militant and join IS. Sindh has long been considered the land of peace and tolerance, and Sindhi women are supposed to be symbolic of that peace and tolerance. A young woman from a stable, educated family, in the midst of her medical studies, whose best friend is supposedly a Hindu and who was known by all accounts to have friends from different religions and a good academic record, doesn’t seem a likely candidate for radicalization and terrorism.
Yet the case of Naureen Leghari, whose facts are still being ascertained, echoes the case of Dr. Afia Siddiqui, the Pakistani MIT-educated scientist who became radicalized, joined Al Qaida, and was arrested and jailed for terrorism in 2010. The same questions were asked of her case: why would a US-educated scientist with three children become an international terrorist?
Naureen Leghari’s family denies that she has become part of a militant network, and her father says that she showed no signs of radicalism. But if you look at the pattern of extremism and its burgeoning influence in Sindh, madressas exist in huge numbers in rural Sindh, competing for followers with more traditional power structures of landowners and political parties. Wall chalkings and flags and banners extolling religious parties are clearly visible, illustrating their visibility and reach. Such movements may not have had as much appeal to ethnic Sindhis in the beginning, but like a virus, extremism will infect its host sooner or later. And being ethnically Sindhi cannot inoculate our youth against being seduced by the siren call of extremism, in these times of transition and global conflict.
Being female doesn’t inoculate you against it either. There are well-documented cases of women joining IS as jihadi brides. (Tabish Khair’s excellent novel Just Another Jihadi Jane is a great look into the psychology of what would make a British Muslim girl give up everything — family, education, friends, normality — in order to go live in the Islamic State). There is no reason to think that a young woman in Pakistan would not make the same choice, if she were sufficiently groomed. Since Leghari married a man involved in terrorism, we can imagine how they might have met on the Internet, developed a correspondence, built an understanding between themselves, and gone down the twin path of love and terrorism.
Parents should be very vigilant about their children’s activities on the Internet. Just as parents of British Muslim children have been warned to look out for signs of radicalization, so too must Pakistani parents watch out for both their sons and their daughters. Especially vulnerable are educated children, who can access radicalizing materials and communicate with groomers and radicalizers over the Internet. Both genders are being targeted, so awareness is absolutely essential for the parents of both boys and girls, regardless of ethnicity, education, or outwards signs of normality.
Schools and colleges that cater to the middle classes and up must also step forward to challenge this phenomenon. Just as children of lower classes and different ethnicities had to be rescued from being sent across the border to Afghanistan to serve as jihadis, another challenge to our children has cropped up for the 21st century: the appeal of fighting for IS. The fate of Mashal Khan and the mysterious case of Naureen Leghari prove that the battle is already being fought in our home grounds.