Caught in the extremist web

Humaira Qayyum, 45, is considering buying earplugs. As she sits in her living room, leafing through a magazine, a cacophony of noise filters through from the bedrooms of her two sons, Firdaus, 20 and Qasim, 18.

The sounds are oddly discordant. From Qasim’s room, the boom of loud rock music, familiar to the parents of teenagers around the world, causes the walls of the house to vibrate. But from Firdaus’s room, it is the mesmerising sound of the recitation of verses from the Holy Quran, rising and falling.

“It has been like this for two years. I almost always have a headache just from the noise. But we are now very worried about Firdaus’s obsession with religion. We never worry about Qasim, even though he is out of the house every night with his friends and comes back rather late,” housewife Humaira told IRIN.

The dilemma is not unique to Humaira and her husband, Irfan, a businessman. An increasing number of young people, to the dismay of their Westernised parents, are turning to extremist Islamic groups and identifying with the often violent causes they promote.

Many young people across Pakistan are being drawn into these groups, lured by the promise of an identity, and revenge for the attacks that the West has carried out on Muslim and Middle East countries.

“The events of 9/11, and what transpired after those terrorist attacks in America changed my thinking. I realised aping the West by listening to their music, wearing their clothes, mimicking their lifestyle and so on was wrong. I do not say violence is the right course, I just say we should think about all the options available to us as Muslims,” says Firdaus in fluent English.

Firdaus, once a top academic achiever in school, has now given up education for religion, spending his time with his friends who believe that it is their job to respond to the Western attacks “one way or another”. They also believe that terrorist violence may be the only way to deal with the West; a message they convey to other youth across Pakistan.

Attracted by celebrities

Not all religious groups advocate ‘jihad’ (Holy War), but the number is growing.

Some groups have found the backing of local celebrities, such as cricketer Muhammad Yusuf – formerly a Christian named Yousaf Youhana – or singer Junaid Jamshed, who has given up his career to join the Islamist cause. These personalities attract more young people to join the cause.

One group growing in popularity is Hizbut Tehrir, an international Islamic group with roots that stretch from England to Central Asia. Although the organisation was banned in Pakistan in 2003 it has continued underground. It is not the only one of its kind.

“Young people turn to these groups because they provide an outlet for their anger at what they see as an unjust world,” said Dr. Khalid Rashid, a psychologist, adding that the groups often “work like cults”, using various means to prevent them from leaving.

“I can do nothing against the people who have taken my son away. They have brainwashed him against people like me, and told him we are not good Muslims because we are not fanatics,” Riaz Adil, 60, a shopkeeper in Lahore said. Adil’s 17-year-old and youngest son has joined a seminary and told friends that he “wants to become a suicide bomber”.

It is not just young men who are lured down this path. In 2005, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported that two well-educated teenage girls in Karachi, Arifa and Saba Baloch, had been ‘picked up’ by intelligence agencies.

It is thought they were influenced by their uncle, Gul Hasan, who was involved with the banned sectarian organisation, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Hasan was sentenced to death for the murder of Shia Muslims, the minority sect in Pakistan.

The parents of the two girls refuse to talk about the matter, but deny their daughters were linked to the extremist group. However, it is thought that the girls were held at an unknown location for eight months, and then quietly returned to their homes in Karachi, with warnings not to talk about their detention.

“This is a terrifying trend in society. It is also expanding rapidly, and is one of the major crises we face. More and more young people are turning to these extremists, and the trend is seen among all categories of young people, ranging from the well-heeled to the poor,” said Iqbal Haider, secretary-general of HRCP.

He stressed there was an urgent need to “think deeply about this whole issue and find solutions”. However, at the same time, Haider pointed out that the issue was linked to “attacks on Muslims and unjust interventions in Muslim nations” at a global level, saying “the more attacks that take place, the more young people turn to extremism”.

The rise in the number of young people joining extremist organisations has traditionally been spurred by a high unemployment rate and a lack of job prospects for those from an underprivileged background. However, the reasons for adopting extremist ideologies is spreading across class, ethnicity and educational borders, leading to a conclusion which for the time being cannot be predicted.

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[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]