In a remote mountain village of a third world country, there stands a modest school for little girls — ground zero for the end of radical extremism. But first…
I stand facing this man, who if dressed in a pair of jeans and a casual shirt, could very well be my neighbor back in Miami. But he is not. I am in a small village just outside of Quetta, Pakistan. He stares at me with his peculiar Green eyes, a reminder of the remnants of the days of Alexandra the Great. This man, for all convenient motives, is a terrorist.
15 years ago, as I stood there, a terrorist to my then trivial mind was a caricature from a superficial Chuck Norris movie. But of course things have changed. After September 2001, everything has changed; and that’s why I write this account.
I write this not so that we befriend this man (lets call him “T-Zero” for reference) and we invite him to our next Memorial Day cookout. I write this because now I can process what happened to me that day, and now I can finally articulate how we may fight this man. Not by cleaving this person’s society by weapons, or by stunning his leaders with diplomacy, but by taking a civilizational approach.
The Hidden Village
“Come have tea”, says T-Zero in Pashto. I don’t understand a word. I look at my guide, who I hope speaks the native language. It is getting dark, and I have a feeling of disquiet in these uncharted mountains of Western Pakistan. We are near Quetta, at least we think that we are, less than 200 miles from Kandahar, Afghanistan, via the historic Khyber Pass. We are lost now for several hours, and T-Zero is the first human that we see. I later find out that James Pavitt, a Director at one of the CIA’s branches, has specified this particular area where the clandestine officers are being targeted for assassination. Yes, this is definitely more Kandahar than Kansas.
T-Zero is wearing the traditional garb, a shalwar kameez; a loose fitting long untucked shirt and an equally loose fitting pajama like pants; sort of a relaxed ninja outfit. He has a customary round soft hat loosely on his head, and is carrying, almost casually, a mean looking Russian made Kalashnikov, also known to as the AK-47.
As I climb a little mound to greet this man, I see to my surprise that there is a whole village, just outside of line of sight from the mountain road that we are on.
Hidden by design?
In fact, it continues on almost vertically to make quite a size. I approach and say the customary and mandatory greeting, “Salaam Allekum”; meaning peace to you. But this is where I stop, and I again motion for help from my guide. I can tell by the posture of T-Zero that he is hard-core mountain man, and most probably does not even speak the national language of Pakistan, which is Urdu.
My guide asks politely in Pashto if we could be directed back to the main road to Ziarat, a quaint little village where we are heading. T-Zero gives a slight laugh, and again invites us to sit down for a while and have some tea. As I keep walking toward this person, I notice this quintessential village, straight out of a movie set; but a very primitive one. I see some signs of lights in small huts, but I am not sure if it is electric or lantern.
There is actually a nice fire burning and a tea kettle is on, as if I am expected. But now I see that this is how these men spend their time. This is some sort of a hang out; a communal place that I just happened to walk right in. There are now several men, all dressed almost identical. At first it seems like they are in uniform, but I see some detail which shows the personal idiosyncrasies of their outfits. They just dress alike. Even their guns look alike. Even the kids are carrying their own weapons; small homemade slingshots.
Realm of Perceptive Reality
My guide is now chatting comfortably with our hosts. Tea is pored for me. A chill is in the air, it is October, and we are at least 6,000 ft. above sea level. It is the sweetest tea I have ever tasted, no cream just lots of sugar. But it tastes fantastic. As I look around I see almost a perfect village; primitive but serene. Perhaps it is the twilight approaching, or perhaps the exotic locale, but certainly there is something thrilling and magical in the air. However, paradoxically, there is also something very disturbing around. There is a very obvious absence of all women-folk. Although that is to be expected in communities like these, I get a sense of the stark contrast between the East and the West.
But still there is a sense of peace here. As I relax a bit, I begin to see details that completely escaped me till this point. From my vantage point, I can now see a medley of activities… A little girl carrying a heavy bucket of water… A woman preparing lanterns with kerosene…There is an underlying sense of lack and poverty, but what strikes me most is not the poverty, but the apparent emotional condition of these people. They seem happy.
A more accurate statement is that they are happy within the realm of their reality. People do tend to move toward the reality that makes them happy. An argument can be made that they do not know better; that if they are exposed to the reality of life, outside their village, they will be then miserable. They live in a bubble. There are many cultures around the world, about 100 or so, according to a May 2008 report by Reuters that have not even been in contact with the outside world. So this phenomenon of living in a closed bubble is nothing different, but the problem is that we are in a feud with T-Zero and the likes. We are not friends.
But wait, there is more; a lot more.
A conversation is taking place over the cozy fire. I am only privy to the bits that my guide translates for me. Since I probably am the only person wearing jeans in a 100 mile radius and don’t speak their language, the assumption is that either I am either from the city of Lahore or Karachi, or even a foreigner. T-Zero tells me that I am weak. Why, I ask? The answer sends chills down my spine. Because, he says, I won’t survive even one day, without my car and guide. I secretly wonder if this is an observation or a theory.
Another man asks me if I am a true Muslim? A loaded question, since their interpretation tends to be quite stern. Did I already do something to offend him? And they are quite easily offended. To illustrate my point, earlier in the day, we had stopped by for some lunch at a fast food joint of sorts. I pointed to what seemed like a tasty hamburger and asked the cashier/cook for a “hamburger”. At this the person replied angrily, “This is a Muslim country, we don’t serve HAM”.
You get the point.
And this is the dark side here. They don’t have the option to live outside this bubble. There is no tolerance. There is no flexibility. There is no democracy, no freedom, and no pluralism; just one frame of though. And if you do not subscribe to that thought, you are the enemy. And this is a problem. There are many thousands of communities such as this all over Pakistan, and all over South East Asia, and the Middle East. And the reason behind all this is even more complicated. It is the intertwining of religion and politics in every fiber of their being.
They don’t separate it. They cannot separate it; which makes them a perfect breeding ground for radicalization; which leads to animosity toward the West, and the rest is all bad news.
The Radicalization of a Civilization
But they are not primarily angry at us. They are offended by us. We laugh and draw cartoons of idiosyncrasies of their culture, and they get angrier and they fume; and yet completely helpless to take on the West. And then it happens. Somebody comes along with rhetoric against the West, for political or dogmatic gain, and the poverty and the ignorance allows for the interjection of even the most unprolific of ideas.
It takes on a force. It is like a disease. It worms its way in the minds of the most vulnerable first; the poor and the ignorant. But it then affects the rest of the like population, even infiltrating some of the mainstream. Then something like 9–11 happens. This is radicalization. It has happened before, it is happening now, and it will happen again.
But we cannot fight them. We must understand this unequivocally. We cannot fight them in any recognizable terms. We cannot win with bombing; we cannot win with diplomacy; we cannot win with sanctions. Who are we going to bomb? Who are we going to negotiate with? Who are we going to embargo?
We often make the mistake of thinking that our enemies are the young hyped-up demonstrators burning Western related effigies that we see so much on TV. They are just sympathizers. And we are not even close to winning any war on terror by engaging them. A person protesting outside the American Embassy does not share the same agenda as his counterpart from these villages. That young misled student is not our enemy. Hell, he does not even know what the real agenda is, or what’s at stake.
I am not saying that T-Zero is a terrorist. It must be understood that the objective here is to end human suffering, and I am using T-Zero as a personification to illustrate the point. Is he a real person? Are his opinions real? Is the village there? Yes to all.
Unlike, the west, there are no malls, coffee houses, and boutiques. I often watch on some cable news where the reporter is interviewing some Iraqi in a local setting, and the subject gives his concise opinion about the war. But in T-Zero’s world, there is no repartee of the existence of Israel, or whether going into Iraq is an appropriate thing to do for the US. It is just you versus them.
Let me drive in this point by giving you the following account. A few years ago, I watched a reporter tell an Afghan villager that it may be daytime here (in Afghanistan), but where he is from (United States) it is actually nighttime. This villager had a look of absolute confusion. I realized at that time that this person actually did not know that the Earth is round! Some of us may think this is funny, but this is what we are up against. We are fighting an incomparable enemy.
The Solution with a Civilizational Approach
Let’s take one thing off the table right now. 90% of the Islamic community in the world, and 99% in the West are completely on the side of the West, or just at the cusp of it. To even entertain the thought that all Muslims are alike, not only is a betrayal of our values, but will prevent us from reaching a solution. This large majority of the populace can be easily swayed by giving them a reason. I have spoken to hundreds of these moderate Muslims, and I have never come across one that is not willing to listen. On the other hand, I have never come across a hard-core fundamentalist who can separate himself from the fervor and rhetoric of extremism.
This is as simple and as accurate of a breakdown as you will ever get.
So, here is the answer.
We know that we can step out of our bubble and experience the world outside, while T-Zero’s people cannot. But we cannot drag them out (diplomacy), or burst their bubble (bombing). What if we simply change their bubble slowly? Of course, this is a long term plan, but there are no quick fixes. However, as soon as we implement this plan, we will immediately see the 90% or so of the borderline Muslim population come over to our side. This is how:
At this point, I just want to make it clear that this is not my prophetic vision. I am just an observer and a reporter. The vision and the work have been going on for decades. I simply bring awareness to it, because we are truly connected, whether we like it or not. Their betterment is our betterment. Their future is our future.
We change the bubble, and affect generations of these people, by building schools, by building hospitals, and by helping them with rural and micro-economic development. And we do not impose our own values on them, but expose the right and peaceful path of living, even if it is different from us; a path resonating democracy and equality.
Of course, there is a lot to it then this. The idea here is not to hand out money to build infrastructure, but to actually use the local resources to create foundations to help humanity, so generations after generations can benefit. It gives “teaching a man to fish” a whole new meaning.
On a trip to a remote area of a third world country, in a mountainous region, dominated by a strict old-fashioned traditional rule, there stands now a school for girls, built by a private developmental organization. How is this revolutionary? Well, traditionally these people do not send their girls to school with the boys, so the girls stay home, with a very bleak future. But now, with an all-girls school, the parents are sending their daughters to school, opening a never-existing opportunity. Can you imagine how different the social landscape will be in the next 15 years? In the next 25 years? When the children of these educated women grow up? Or just the contribution and the attitude these women themselves will have toward the humane and charitable West?
The good news is that things are beginning to happen. Billion dollar companies, such as the Blackstone Group, are investing large amounts in previously shattered cities, to open five star hotels to attract more serious investors. In other parts of the world, ancient and heritage related architecture is being restored using local labor and expertise. And in yet other areas state-of-the-art university hospitals are functioning in full force. And to top it all off, micro-finance machines are operating effectively to optimize rural development.
In conclusion, we have to accept the reality that there is a vast difference between the civilizations of the East and the West. We may not be friends for another 1,000 years, but we can be allies in 20. It is said that faith overwhelms all logic. But with the help of these developmental organizations, we can achieve a balance, so the East can keep being embedded in their faith, while incorporating democracy, freedom, and pluralism; all parts of the true Islamic principals. We don’t have to go far in history to see that true democracy is in alignment with the Muslim world.
It is hard to hate an enemy who you are helping, and it is even harder to hate an enemy who is helping you, and your progeny. As time goes on, the communities of the world that are under the pressure of being radicalized will have the opposite pressure. Instead of being influenced by warlords and dogmatic leaders, they will be influenced by organizations dedicated to service humanity. Belief and civilization is inseparable in humanity; but it can go either way. It is up to us; to end human suffering — on all sides.