The South Asia Channel

Fighting militancy with music

As if it weren’t bad enough before, I’m going to have even more trouble getting through airports, thanks to Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to car bomb Times Square. People will ask me, "Why did Faisal Shahzad do this?" and expect me, a math-econ major, to give some insightful political analysis, just because I am a ...

As if it weren’t bad enough before, I’m going to have even more trouble getting through airports, thanks to Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to car bomb Times Square. People will ask me, "Why did Faisal Shahzad do this?" and expect me, a math-econ major, to give some insightful political analysis, just because I am a Pakistani Muslim. But I haven’t the faintest clue what drove Faisal Shahzad to attempt an act of terrorism. What I do know, however, is that Muslims around the world no longer have the luxury of thinking that people know that Islam is a religion of peace. We need to take ownership of this problem and stop people from hijacking Islam. Grassroots and media movements should stem from the Muslim community and put distance between the average peaceful Muslim and Islamist extremists, hopefully preventing the recruitment of future Faisal Shahzads. The violent ideology Shahzad seems to have bought into, which justifies the killing of innocents and is based on a distorted interpretation of Islam, needs to be debunked. As Muslims, we must challenge this ideology and use whatever means of communication that we have to do so. I have chosen music and animation.

In my music video, "Find Heaven," I depict some of the flaws of Pakistani society, and show how this has led to impoverished Pakistanis being manipulated into taking part in terrorism for the gain of a few. I have been leveraging social media to highlight how Islamist extremists are taking advantage of the socially, economically and politically despondent situation in Pakistan and are luring disenchanted Pakistanis to their cause by offering them the promise and rewards of "Heaven." While writing "Find Heaven" I considered it more a narrative that highlighted society’s failings as opposed to a statement against Islamist extremists. The whole narrative would still be valid if Islamist extremists were replaced by politicians who offered the impoverished a form of Heaven via power, fame and money. But I chose to highlight the modus operandi Islamist extremists use to further their ideology, as I believe they pose the most immediate threat to Pakistan.

When people in Pakistan try to decipher the causes of Islamist extremism, the usual suspects pop up: poverty, lack of education, injustice, lack of infrastructure, U.S. foreign policy, drone attacks, ad infinitum. And it’s true; all these issues can lead to people becoming more susceptible to terrorist recruiters and to accepting the violent ideology espoused by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which allegedly provided some training to Faisal Shahzad. That being said, there needs to be more effort to counter the ideology that is funneling the supply of Islamist extremists. While a number of organizations have been established to improve education and development in Pakistan, I am hard pressed to think of a group devoted to nullifying the ideological hardliners of the Muslim world. The Muslim world has not been able to produce a leader or an individual who can combat the extremists’ ideology at the same level that Osama bin Laden advocates for it and the Muslim world loses credibility because of this. Who is the Batman to Osama bin Laden’s Joker?

In Pakistan, at the forefront of the fight against Islamist extremism, while the military has engaged in a series of anti-militant offensives in the northwest, to date there has not been a concerted effort to diminish the ideological safe haven militants have across Pakistan by changing the mindsets of the TTP and its allies and winning over jihadist sympathizers in Pakistan’s urban areas. If Islamist extremists lost support from their communities, they would have more difficulty plotting attacks and more likely be exposed to law enforcement. A national media campaign in Pakistan against the Islamists’ hateful ideology could be a powerful tool, bolstered by arguments from Islamic scholars using the very tools the militants claim to justify their attacks — the Quran and the Sunnah, and the ample body of Islamic literature — to negate their twisted rationales. The work of people like Salman al Oudah, Dr. Fadl, and Noman Benotman, who were previously supporters of the extremists’ ideology but now openly condemn it, must be highlighted and would give the campaign more credibility.

While extremism may have stemmed from society’s failings, substantial work still needs to be done to combat the ideology which has now established roots in Pakistan. I hope that "Find Heaven" will make people uncomfortable and lead them to ask questions which will challenge the Islamists’worldview. Why were the extremists the only one reaching out to the main character? Why don’t we have a society where there is justice and equality? Where is the God in what the extremists are doing? Why aren’t we, Muslims and Pakistanis, doing anything to stop this? For us to be able to challenge this ideology and remove this ideological cancer, we have to ask these difficult questions.

My experience with "Find Heaven" has convinced me that people in Pakistan are desperate for someone to challenge the TTP’s violence. The response to "Find Heaven" has been overwhelmingly positive. People sent me messages thanking me for reflecting their thoughts and saying what was on their minds.

The most humbling experience and the one that I hold on to for motivation was when a teacher from Pakistan contacted me about "Find Heaven." She told me she had shown "Find Heaven" to her students and that they had liked it so much that they decided to perform it for their annual school day. When I heard that I was completely taken aback. A short music video that I had made in my free time, with the help of friends, was resonating with the youth of Pakistan and motivating them to differentiate themselves from the extremist ideology. If my short video could have such an impact on the youth of Pakistan, consider what the results of a well-funded and concerted media effort against the extremist ideology would be.

Faisal Shahzad — an educated U.S. citizen with a wife and two kids — does not fit the clichéd image of an "uneducated-impoverished-bearded-man" that was once the stereotype for terrorists (which I too have promoted in "Find Heaven"), but he does have one thing in common with Islamist extremists: he bought into their violent ideology. And it is this ideology that we Muslims need to challenge by whatever means we have. As long as we fail to do so, the world will continue to see us as threats. As people who can turn into Faisal Shahzad without any warning. 

Daniyal Noorani grew up in Lahore, Pakistan and attended Lawrence University in Wisconsin. He now does business development for a biotech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In his spare time he writes music and directs videos. His first single, "Find Heaven," addresses radicalization and Taliban militancy and has been shown in a number of film festivals, most recently the London Independent Film Festival.

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