Educated Professionals and Jihadism in South Asia
by Stephen Schwartz
Whoever deserves original blame for the horror, one thing is certain: the conflict in Assam has been and will be manipulated from a distance by Islamist extremists. And the "emirs" who work constantly to multiply confrontations between Muslims and non-Muslims do not share the often-deplorable lives of the people whom they would incite against one another.
Some Muslim leaders have acted responsibly in the recent crises. After Muslims committed anti-Buddhist vandalism in Lucknow, the All India Ulema and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), a spiritual Sufi coordinating body headquartered in that city, called on Muslims "not to resort to demonstrations, [to] maintain calm and respect the law." Syed Babar Ashraf, national AIUMB secretary, demanded that Muslims "stand firmly against all the evil forces which are trying to weaken the democratic and secular fabric of India."
Meanwhile, Islamist activists, as indicated by research and publications over the past three decades, often differ markedly now from the disadvantaged and ill-guided Muslims in whose name they claim to act and whom they hope to recruit, from Assam to Afghanistan. In the arrest in late August 2012 of 16 members of the so-called "Indian Mujahideen" accused of terrorist plotting, all were representatives of the educated elite. With six detained in Bangalore, five in Hubli, four in Nanded and one in Hyderabad, they included, according to the London Daily Mail of 2 September 2012, "A journalist, a doctor, a researcher at the Defence Research and Development Organisation, an employee of a major computer [multinational] and an engineer – all professionals, many excelling in their chosen fields." The Mail identified "Muti-ur-Rahman Siddiqui… a reporter who covered the higher education beat for the English daily Deccan Herald, Master of Computer Applications student Shohaib Mirza and his brother Aijaz Mirza, a DRDO junior scientist, [as] among those arrested."
The Mail contrasted this profile with the common image of the South Asian jihadist as "a madrasa-educated, semi-literate individual." Why, one wonders, would a doctor or engineer, with a prestigious career, turn to radicalism? Yet the involvement of prosperous Muslim professionals in jihadist activities is hardly new, counter-intuitive as it may seem to those outside the Muslim community.
The 2007 London and Glasgow car-bomb plot provided the first example of the participation of a medical professional in a terrorist assault in Europe – Bilal Abdullah, an Iraqi doctor. But before then, the appearance of medical personnel in Islamist terrorism in the Middle East had become almost commonplace. Globally, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, successor to Osama Bin Laden as "emir" of Al-Qaida, is the best known example. Al-Zawahiri was trained as a physician and comes from a prominent Egyptian medical family. There have been numerous others like him. In Afghanistan, the well-educated Al-Zawahiri became the epitome of ultra-fundamentalist Islam, while a local, unsophisticated figure like the Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar lost standing and is nearly forgotten.
The organization I founded, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, published a report entitled "Scientific Training and Radical Islam" in 2008. Therein, a group of contributors analyzed the motivations of Muslim doctors to join in homicidal extremist conspiracies. Obviously, such a commitment clashes with the traditional view – among Muslims as well as in other communities – of the medical practitioner as pledged to preserve life.
Our study recalled that recruitment by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood of educated professionals – concentrating on the Egyptian "syndicates" of doctors and engineers – began late in the 20th century as the Egyptian university system expanded ambitiously. Muslim Brotherhood leaders perceived that a large, upwardly-mobile demographic cohort would produce a change in the direction of the country. Journalists and lawyers were additionally targeted by the Brotherhood.
An early aspect of this phenomenon was the emergence of over-educated but under-employed Egyptian professionals, whose vocational paths were frustrated. In nations left behind by economic growth, medical students face a lack of the modern technology and related services available in developed states. When Muslim doctors and other professionals may gain work in an impoverished environment, they may fear that the instability of the system around them will deprive them of the more sheltered status they desire. These are undeniable sources of resentment, aggravating extremist trends. Such problems afflict Pakistan and other Muslim countries. But professionally-educated radicals elsewhere have not lacked opportunities to perform in their areas of specialization. Saudi Arabia maintains an extensive and highly-trained medical system, as does Iran, both including numbers of doctors who remain convinced Islamist fanatics.
We pointed to other contributing factors in the evolution of the "terrorist doctor." In Muslim societies, some have been employed in clinics established by the Muslim Brotherhood and similar movements, where access to free medical care is associated with an Islamist "charity." In addition, Muslim doctors may be radicalized by their activities in disaster aid. The notorious Pakistani ally of Al-Qaida, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT – Army of the Righteous), which now operates as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD – Community of Preaching), and is blamed for the 2008 Mumbai terror assault, advertises its extensive relief activities in response to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 floods in Pakistan. But ideological attitudes appear more common than existential experience in the evolution of a radical Muslim doctor.
Muslim doctors studying in the West may have combined their training with a different outlook toward religion and science than that of their non-Muslim colleagues. Where the non-Muslim medical student may be influenced by religious ethics, the Muslim student may incorporate the Islamic view of the universe throughout his education, often drawing on sources outside the classroom and laboratory. The Muslim Brotherhood ideologist Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) argued that science and religion are inseparable, and that a revival of fundamentalist Islam will advance Muslim scientific attainments. Islamist doctors may believe this to be true, although it contradicts traditional Islamic teaching, in which faith and science are distinct in character.
The Muslim doctor may also find that in acquiring a modern, scientific education, and embracing professional goals, one becomes distant from religious faith. Once established at work, the Muslim doctor may turn to radicalism to reaffirm his Islamic beliefs. The Muslim professional returning to religion will not want to adopt the customs of often-immigrant parents. Rather, radical Islam is simpler to learn and practice. No theological study is necessary; only obedience to the "emirs."
In another psychological problem, knowledge of medicine gives the doctor the power of life and death. Muslim medical personnel may find that this sense of exaltation, along with their superior status, even when poorly remunerated, distorts their world-view and drives them toward radical doctrines. Having gained a position of public respect, they may be swept away by a temptation to impose their previously-neglected objectives on others around them. Advancement in a profession may suggest the possible realization of any and all endeavors.
Muslim physicians have been notably successful in Britain and the U.S. Most have adapted efficiently to the host culture of their occupations. But there will always be exceptions. In addition, South Asian doctors have become a permanent leadership group in American Islam. Pakistani-American doctors are often influenced by a multi-author volume, Islamic Medicine (Karachi, 1989), edited by Shahid Athar, M.D., an endocrinologist and professor at the University of Indiana in the U.S.
A contributor to Athar's collection, Mahmoud Abu Saud has observed in his chapter "The Role of a Muslim Doctor:" "[T]he doctor has a big say and great weight in influencing his patients and in righteously guiding their orientation. Besides, he should be actively involved in propagating true Islam." And "true" Islam is a trope typically utilized by radicals to justify their public claims.
In India, with its dynamic informational technology sector, Muslim software engineers may develop similar delusions of omnipotence. In the ongoing investigation of the "Indian Mujahideen" – which claimed to have carried out a series of bombings in 2007-11 – Mumbai software engineers Mohammed Ansar, Mohammed Sadiq Sheikh, and Mohammed Mansoor Asghar Peerbhoy were arrested in 2008. Peerbhoy was formerly an employee of Yahoo! India.
The considerable role of the internet, including YouTube preaching and videos, in the recruitment of jihadists, has been repeatedly observed over the decade since the atrocities of 11 September 2001. The internet generation of jihadists is not rooted in small, remote communities competing with others for economic survival. The Muslim needy are, in general, like the Muslim poor everywhere – concerned to support themselves and their families, with help from traditional Islamic principles. Internet jihadism comes from and is directed to the affluent sectors of the Muslim community.
If Assamese Muslims have fallen victim to Islamist agitation in the current crisis, and the situation worsens, it is probable that behind the problem will be found neither local leaders or grievances, but the elite "emirs" of the main jihadist movements: the Saudi-inspired Wahhabis, the followers of Mawdudi in Pakistan and its large community abroad, the increasingly-radical Deobandi clerics in India. The Muslim incited to brutality in a state like Assam is as much a victim as the Muslim's adversary.
The Western conception of radical Islam continues to perceive in it a protest movement of the deprived and hopeless, when it is, in reality, a grasp at power by Muslim strata that have evolved in their political aims over recent decades. As a primary example, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is no longer a movement of the dispossessed, but of those who consider themselves entitled. Domination of radical forces by successful, educated and entrepreneurial individuals is seen likewise in the Brotherhood-linked Turkish "soft fundamentalist" party, the Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Jihadist movements project a vision of "original," "pure" Islam but have no objection to using the internet to reach it, just as the Wahhabis who conquered Arabia objected to all modern "innovations" except weaponry.
Islamist radicalism will be more quickly defeated when it is accurately perceived as a product of the abstract, pseudo-intellectual, and pseudo-religious fantasies of the Islamist elite than of practical problems – including those involving immigration and identity – between ordinary people. The "educated terrorist" is neither new nor rare. Nor is the indispensable role of money in supporting terrorism. Defeating jihadism requires a consequential struggle against the smooth functionaries and adept financiers who lead the Muslim masses astray, from their posts in the high levels of civil and state power in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, above all.