Why Are Young People Angry? Perspectives From Pakistan


By Moonis Ahmar

One needs to analyze why anti-Americanism has permeated in Pakistani society and why youth in the Muslim world feel not only frustrated but also vulnerable to extremism and militancy?

Recently, renowned Pakistani academician Pervez Hoodbhoy rightly argued in Dawn that, “as anti-US lava spews from the fiery volcanoes of Pakistan’s private television channels and newspapers, a collective psychosis grips the country’s youth. Murderous intent follows with the conviction that the US is responsible for all ills, both in Pakistan and in the world of Islam.” As depicted by General David Petraeus, who is in charge of the US military operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan, that Faisal Shahzad may be a ‘lone wolf’ but one wonders how a Western styled young man of 30 years of age got influenced and inspired by the ‘jihadi’ culture? Shahzad’s cousin, Zulfiqar Ali, a bank employee in Peshawar when interviewed by Newsweek said that “in recent months Shahzad didn’t seem like the same person he knew when he was younger. As a young man, Shahzad was polite, well mannered, and enthusiastic about his studies.” But when Ali met Shahzad recently he was “serious, quiet, and distant.”

Like many young Pakistanis, Shahzad went to the United States for his studies and in the following years also got American citizenship. There are hundreds of young Americans of Pakistani origin not only in North America but also in the West who may have embraced Islamic militancy but it doesn’t mean that a vast majority of Pakistani youth hates the United States and the West. Yet, what has happened in the last two decades is the surge of anti-Americanism not only in Pakistan but in many parts of the world. But the case of Pakistan is special because as pointed out by Fareed Zakaria in his column ‘terrorism’s supermarket’ (Newsweek, 17 May 2010) that “Faisal Shahzad, the would be terrorist of Times Square, seems to have followed a familiar path. Like many earlier recruits to jihad, he was middle-class, educated, seemingly assimilated and then something radicalized him.” Zakaria’s assertion that Pakistan is a ‘terrorist supermarket’ may not be true but the media blitz followed by each terrorist act, whether failed or successful, found a direct and indirect link in Pakistan.

Three factors are significant while analyzing the phenomenon of anti-Americanism in Pakistan and the role of youth in this regard. First, the culture of religious indoctrination in Pakistan co-opted anti-Americanism when Washington stopped its funding to the Afghan jihad. The so called betrayal of the US in Afghanistan and its blatant support to Israel further strengthened anti-American feelings in Pakistan.

Second, frequent drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan killing countless innocent people triggered hostile reactions, a fact which was also narrated by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, that Faisal Shahzad’ act might be a reaction to US drone attacks. It was, perhaps for the first time, that an official of the government linked what Shahzad had tried to do in Times Square to the collateral damage done by the US drone attacks inside Pakistan. For some circles, such a statement made by the Foreign Minister was counter-productive because it vindicated what the United States had been arguing since long, that in order to eliminate the threat of terrorism against America, one needs to liquidate the ‘safe heavens’ of terrorists in Pakistan. This was evident from the hard hitting statement of the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, in which she threatened Pakistan of serious consequences if in future an attempt was made to target the United States by terrorists having links inside Pakistan.

Finally, economic backwardness, a poor educational system and the lack of proper employment opportunities provided space to those elements who recruited youth to use them either as suicide bombers or carry out other type of terrorist activities inside Pakistan. But what has happened is that Western educated and modern youth, belonging either to the middle or upper middle classes were also lured by the so-called ‘jihadi’ elements so that they could be effectively used to conduct acts of terror in the West, particularly in the United States. American Muslims of either Pakistani origin or any other Muslim country became useful tools for those who wanted to sustain pressure on the West.

Anti-American sentiment among the educated youth of Pakistan is more rhetorical than real. Majority of those who are studying in Universities, both state owned and private, want to proceed to the West for their higher studies and seek all the benefits which a western lifestyle can offer. The problem is, while living in a conservative background and with a parochial mindset, when they reach the Western world, they get a cultural shock. Some of them are lured by the local Muslim clergy who while abusing the Western culture also want to secure all the benefits. It is the dichotomy of a conservative mindset and the liberal Western values which in some cases produce people like Faisal Shahzad.

Moonis Ahmar is Professor and Chairman of Department of  International Relations at the University of Karachi and may be reached at  [email protected]. This article was published by IPCS.


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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