Jobs and jihad: US needs to recognise Saudi role in nurturing fundamentalism in Pakistan

Jobs and jihad: US needs to recognise Saudi role in nurturing fundamentalism in Pakistan
Photo Credit: Handout via Reuters
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One thing is known about Tashfeen Malik: she is a murderer who, along with her husband Syed Rizwan Farook, shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. In a United States riven with paranoia following the attacks in Paris, she has been elevated to a terror mastermind, the lethal Pakistani bride who did not simply participate in the massacre but planned it and egged her husband on to do it.

The consequences of her acts and the suspicions birthed from them will of course be borne by others. A mere 10 days after the attacks, The New York Times reported officials saying that the only way future “terror brides” could be prevented from entering the country was to extend the scrutiny applied to female applicants of K-1 and other visas. It is quite likely that these instructions have already been issued to US consular posts.

Those of course are the actions being taken by the US counterterrorism establishment, which has promptly taken the superficial aspects of Tashfeen Malik (and notably not her husband) and is now presenting them as wide-ranging truths regarding Muslim women and terror plots.

Conservative turn

One aspect of Tashfeen Malik’s life that has not received attention is the fact that she was raised in a Saudi expatriate home, with a father who became notably more conservative after his move to that country. This fact, highlighted in the few reports filed from Pakistan but largely pushed to the sidelines in American discourse, may in fact present the most crucial clues regarding global labour movements, the import of societal conservatism, and its consequent escalation into a murderous rage pinned to misguided zealotry.

The large-scale extraction of oil in Saudi Arabia led to a seismic shift in the regional labour market. Suddenly Pakistani workers, including Tashfeen Malik’s father, were in demand to toil in Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, delivering the black gold that would make the kingdom one of the richest countries in the world. The trickle-down effect was and continues to be crucial to Pakistan’s labour export market, bringing in several billion dollars in remittances – the largest amount sent back from any country.

The impact was visible in all Pakistani communities that were sending their sons to Saudi Arabia; houses built on remittances, well-appointed and ostentatious, stood in remote villages as emblems of the bounty their owners were digging out of the faraway desert land. As years passed, more left when they had earned enough or when their sons could earn in their stead, they returned.

War of ideologies

It was not just money they brought back with them. Years in conservative Saudi Arabia also meant years immersed in Wahabi doctrine, whose literalist premises judged their own understanding of religion as inadequate and inauthentic. The Saudis are, after all, the guardians of Islam’s holiest places, their desert the religion’s birthplace; they must know better. So the logic went, pressed further by the fact that the Saudis were also their bosses, whose greater largesse and untouchable superiority inspired an equal pressure in Pakistanis to do as their Saudi masters did.

So this strand of religion came back to Pakistan on the backs of oil workers. The tale of Tashfeen Malik’s father is typical: a man at odds with the family he left behind, judging them for their lesser devotions. It happens all the time, in every Pakistani village.

Pakistan, its job market still dependent on the export of labour to Saudi Arabia, cannot say “no” to what its workers bring back. Nor does it have the power to stem the flow of worker-borne religious conservatism.

The consequence is a constant war of ideologies between the subcontinent’s live-and-let-live brand of Islam – more tolerant and less combative, reared as it was in an environment of cosmopolitanism and diversity – and its Saudi adversary. The latter is winning, Pakistanis can tell Americans; the impetus for “correction”, where self-styled ideologues harass, pester and sometimes kill others they believe supportive of a less conservative strand of Islam, is commonplace in the country. Their ranks have been bolstered by new generations raised in Saudi-financed religious schools, Saudi-funded charities and a host of other instruments of Saudi evangelism.

Hatred of tolerance

It is all old news in Pakistan; conservatism bred and fed to become the bedding for something worse, the carnage of young children killed in a school, whose anniversary falls on December 16, and tens of thousands of other acts of terror that will not be remembered but have nevertheless devastated and eviscerated.

It is disturbing to see these connections and causes ignored in America, whose cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia renders it mute and resolute against its ambitions of reform in the Islamic world.

Saudi Arabia is bombing the militant Islamic State group, the latest flavour of Islamic extremism that has installed itself as the world’s new bogeyman; this fact somehow becomes a reason to forget all the other trajectories of terror that it cultivates and promotes.

Pakistan needs jobs and Saudi Arabia provides them; in exchange, it is not just the toiling bodies of young Pakistani men that are offered up to squeeze the oil from the kingdom’s largesse but also their minds. As they work in an environment where women are never seen, where tolerance is not necessary because everyone has been homogenised, altered, filed and made to fit a constricted and literal version of religion, they develop also a hatred of the tolerance they may have once known at home. Pakistan is remembered not simply as poor but also less pious.

Making it in Saudi Arabia, then, requires looking down on Pakistan, and the consequences of imported conservatism are visible everywhere, from Karor Lal Esan to Karachi. The Americans, sadly, are too far away to see, too preoccupied in dissecting visible enemies, garage-made bombs and “terror brides” to note the complicity of the friends who birthed them.