Many Western policy-makers find the increasing enlistment of young poor people in religious militancy as an anomaly of history. However, in the U.S. we have had our own security threats from armed bands of young poor people: gangs. The youth’s propensity in Pakistan to engage in militant extremism is similar to the gang mentality that affects low-income minority communities across the United States. Groups like drug gangs and the Taliban appeal to a youth who feels alienated from their society and powerless to change their condition. A large amount of young people who lack education and live in increasingly volatile environments are central components for the success of drug gangs and extremists alike.
Salma Butt represents an organization for youth development in Pakistan called Bargad, and delivered a talk at Johns Hopkins University this week. Ms. Butt stated that the youth she interviewed, who were involved in militancy, had little understanding or interest in the ideology of the groups they belonged to. For the most part, she found that the young people had no other option available to channel their youthful energies, and these groups offered them an outlet. Further, these non-state groups took advantage of the hopeless sentiment felt by some young Pakistanis who perceive their government as too incapable or unmotivated to ameliorate their condition.
The same sort of environment harbored the rise of gangs in the United States, which date back generations to the Irish street gangs of New York, (the Irish were one of the first targets of American xenophobia). The 1900’s saw a great migration of people to American cities, which caused an unplanned mixing of races and socioeconomic groups in an otherwise rigid class system. The threat of potential harassment and opportunity for self-empowerment brought forward the rise of black and Latino gangs in this era.
There were several reasons why the teenagers joined the gang other than the racial and socioeconomic discrimination they felt as minorities in America during that time period. The gang in those times served a community purpose; while utilizing brutal methods, they aimed at protecting those within the gang and residents of the neighborhood. Many of the teenagers in these low-income areas lacked a formal family structure, and found such a unit in the gang. They further lacked a sense of purpose or identity because they never had proper guidance inside or outside the school. Lastly, these youth had to deal with a lack of alternative community groups to associate with in the social vacuum of their hostile environment.
Collectively, this created allure for the young father-less poor male who finally would have a common purpose in which to channel his youthful energy. Unfortunately, with the influx of drugs after the Vietnam War, the common purpose became selling drugs and defending territory. While the allure was once power in the community, it is now power over the community which drives thousands of American teenagers each year to gangs.
There are obviously differences between the Taleban, who have an ideological religious agenda, and gangs, who attract enlistment based on the despondency of the local youth without any kind of spiritual message. Yet, if we recognize that many young recruits in Pakistan’s terrorist groups do not know or care to understand the concepts behind jihad, then we see a correlation between the gang mentality and this newly-increasing youth militancy.
The hopelessness and revulsion toward mainstream culture in Gangland, USA is the same as the Kaleshinkov Culture’s hate toward the central government of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both groups thrive where there is lack of identity or purpose in young people, lack of education, social services, and a despondency in the current status of the nation. To summarize, Dr. Kaiser Bengali once stated at a talk in Pakistan “The jihadi outfits provide weapons, money, identity, meaningfulness, and sense of power to the existentially insecure youth. This culture of guns and inequality has militarized our minds.”
The confusion for American policy-makers is deciding whether this is an ideological threat or a threat by a group of angry young people who want jobs and education. The two can be separated, despite claims made by Pakistani apologists who claim that no one in Pakistan ideologically supported extremism until the U.S. began its drone attacks.
The answer will not come from the U.S. but from the nation’s leadership looking introspectively and finding that much of the threat is not ideological but based on socio-economic conditions creating a hopeless and listless youth. Unlike battling an ideology, there are tangible steps one can take to alter the increasingly militant sympathy; this includes improving education, providing more community outreach groups, and providing basic social services. Thus, both American policy-makers and Pakistan’s leadership must readjust their focus to include long-term incentives for the populace to reject a religious insurgency.