Pakistani students recite the Koran in an Islamic school in Peshawar

A young Pakistani man who I met recently said to me, “If Pakistan is safe the world is safe, if Pakistan is in danger then the world is in danger, because we have “atom.” And Pakistan is in deep danger.” He was sincere, persuasive, brilliant, but also blunt in that special way that survivors whose lives are in danger tend to be. He was also on a mission to rediscover the religion of his youth, an Islam he could be proud of. He watched helplessly in his lifetime as the contest for Pakistan and Afghanistan that ensued between the Soviet Union, Iran, the United States, and Saudi Arabia morphed into a bloody battle in the name of religion.

The young man, who we will call Malik, has been searching to restore the earlier Islamic culture to his native Pakistan, but the forces arrayed against him are enormous. This is what Malik reported to me as a graduate of several of the more extreme madrasas. Religion is a tool but criminality is the root of the matter. There are three major sources of funding for jihadis now: kidnapping wealthy children, drug sales, and the misguided ideologies of a small group of wealthy Pakistanis with nationalist designs on the region, from Kashmir to Afghanistan, who take advantage of poor youth.

At least half of the recruits of extreme madrasas have no interest in the ideology but are there to make a living. That having been said, once they are “on the team” they are bound to a dark world of thugs disguising themselves as righteous leaders who train their teams to debate and defeat their religious competitors. If necessary they kill rivals who may pray in a slightly different way, or dress a slightly different way. In other words, this is gang warfare for personal gain of unscrupulous leaders, some of whom are sufficiently hypocritical that they traffic in stolen boys for personal sexual use. Piety is nowhere to be found.

If this is the environment what is the strategy of the United States’ aid package? The government of the United States and the government of Pakistan are addicted to aid in the form of excessive military hardware. It satisfies only corrupt constituencies in both countries. A fraction of that aid redirected at the building of schools could make a major dent in jihadi training.

The Saudis are already pumping in significant money into more moderate madrasas, but they have the capacity to do much more with the surplus in oil revenues. It is a good bargain. Pakistan can be a testing ground for the Saudi King’s new emphasis on interfaith relations. His most recent groundbreaking statements on interfaith relations would make it very easy to fund madrasa education in Pakistan that emphasizes an embrace of Sunni-Shi’ite relations, for example.

Malik’s vision is for interfaith harmony, but he is so angry at the hypocrisy of the jihadi leadership that he wanted me to tell the world in his name what is going on. We engaged intensely for hours, and then I looked him in the eyes and said, “I am going to pull rank on you. I am fifty, and you are half my age. When I was your age I was angry too, but engaging in a negative campaign will put you in danger with your own people, as I did with mine. There is nothing constructive in dying.” He said unsurprisingly, “I am on a mission, and it is ok to die for a mission.” I said, “Why fight against them for two years and then die, when instead you can lead the way positively for the next half a century in fostering a noble Islam?” That gave him pause.

The United States has done enough damage to the millions of Pakistani youngsters caught up in the left-over ravages of the Cold War. Reverse the aid package: redirect the majority of the billions in current aid into education, jobs and health, and give peaceful Islam a chance. Set up a major Pakistani-American private sector council to advise and direct the aid in a way that will create job opportunities in both countries. This is the real way to undermine the jihadi leadership, stabilize Pakistan, and make us all safer. More importantly, Malik deserves to live a long life, and so do his spiritual dreams.

© Marc Gopin