May 16, 2010

Faisal Shahzad: Another Case of Blowback

Sometimes it feels like every other post I write deals with the subject of blowback. I really don’t enjoy rehashing these arguments week after week, but here we are, nearly nine years after 9/11, and most Americans still don’t understand why so many in the Muslim world want to kill us. So until people start to get it, I guess I’ll keep at it.

For today’s lesson, I’ll be focusing on Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who attempted to set off a bomb in Times Square on May 1. In the days that followed Shahzad’s arrest, numerous commentators speculated about his motives, with many conservatives predictably placing the blame on “radical Islam.” Scorning the idea that terrorists like Shahzad might be motivated by “political grievance,” Clifford May claimed that such men embrace “a warrior faith dedicated to conquest—with power, wealth, and glory accruing to conquerors.” According to May, such men look back to Islam’s glorious past—when Muslim armies “marched westward to the Atlantic, eastward to the Pacific, and into Europe as well”—and believe that “similar conquests can and should be won in the 21st century—if only Muslims will return to their roots and fulfill their obligation to wage jihad” (“The Long and Foggy War,” National Review, 13 May 2010).

Contrary to May, it turns out that Shahzad was in fact motivated by political grievances. In a recent New York Times article, Andrea Elliott, Sabrina Tavernise, and Anne Bernard recount Shadhzad’s path to radicalization. Relying on “interviews with relatives, friends, classmates, neighbors, colleagues and government officials, as well as e-mail messages written by Mr. Shahzad,” the reporters show that he didn’t start out as a fundamentalist Muslim. While attending the University of Bridgeport, he “worked out obsessively and, on weekends, hit New York City’s Bengali-theme nightclubs. He loved women, recalled a former classmate, and ‘could drink anyone under the table.’ He showed little interest in Islam” (“For Car Bomb Suspect, a Long Path to Times Square,” 15 May 2010).

It was only after the Bush administration launched its “war on terror” that Shahzad started to sober up. One family member recalled: “He was always very upset about the fabrication of the W.M.D. stunt to attack Iraq and killing noncombatants such as the sons and grandson of Saddam Hussein.” Elliott et al. note that in 2003 “Shahzad had been copied on a Google Groups e-mail message bearing photographs of Guantánamo Bay detainees, handcuffed and crouching, below the words ‘Shame on you, Bush. Shame on You.’”

It was during this time that he started to become more religious, eventually adopting an extremely puritanical and political form of Islam. By 2006, he had become fully radicalized, as can be evidenced by an email he wrote to some friends. After blaming the US government for inflicting suffering on Muslims throughout the world—by supporting Pakistan’s “dictatorship,” by controlling “Hypocrite government in the Muslim world [sic],” by attacking and occupying Muslim countries—he argued that jihad was the only way he and his friends could defend their fellow Muslims:

Can you tell me a way to save the oppressed? And a way to fight back when rockets are fired at us and Muslim blood flows? In Palestine, Afghan, Iraq, Chechnya and else where. We don’t know the realities on ground as to what the Mujahideen goes through but you would have to agree to the fact that there is a force out there that is fighting the west and is defeating them. (“Email from Faisal Shahzad,” New York Times, 15 May 2010)

Although it’s impossible to get inside of his mind, none of the above evidence suggests, as May and others have claimed, that Shahzad turned to terrorism in order to help bring about a worldwide Islamic government. Rather, it suggests that his botched bombing was a response to US military actions overseas, an attempt to “save the oppressed,” to “fight back.” According to one family member, Shahzad was especially enraged by America’s recent drone strikes in Pakistan, where he was born and raised.

That Muslims feel anger over US military actions overseas, that some feel the need to strike back, should come as no surprise to us. As Congressman Ron Paul often asks, How would we feel if a foreign nation were doing the same things to us? (“Opportunities for Peace and Nonintervention,”, 6 January 2009). How would we feel if China or Russia were sending drones into American territory? How would we feel if these drones, though purportedly sent to kill bad guys, were more often than not killing innocent civilians? (“US Killed 700 Civilians in Pakistan Drone Strikes in 2009,”, 2 January 2010). How would we feel? No doubt we’d be livid. No doubt some of us would respond to this evil by perpetrating evil of our own.

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