What drove Malik to kill in San Bernardino?

Hardliners: The San Bernardino shooter was an educated, middle-class Pakistani woman with conservative beliefs. (Farooq Naeem/AFP)

Hardliners: The San Bernardino shooter was an educated, middle-class Pakistani woman with conservative beliefs. (Farooq Naeem/AFP)

Anyone looking for clues for why Tashfeen Malik turned from being a young mother into an Islamic State-supporting mass killer capable of gunning down 14 people with her husband will struggle to find anything in what is known of the 29-year-old Pakistani.

The news that Malik – who went on a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, United States, last week with her husband Syed Rizwan Farook, attended a women’s religious group that promotes an austere form of Islam – did nothing to change the profile of a woman who resembles countless other young Pakistanis living at a time of social, economic and religious upheaval.

“She’s a typical small-town, educated, middle-class conservative,” said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a commentator for Dawn newspaper. It is a class getting richer, living in fast-growing towns and, Paracha noted, increasingly strident in its religion.

In 2013 the British Council surveyed Malik’s generation of 18- to 29-year-olds and found 38% wanted to live under strict religious laws – higher than democracy or military rule.

Staff at the Al-Huda Institute in Multan, the city in Pakistan where Malik attended university from 2007 to 2013, said she was a regular visitor in her free time. Al-Huda specialises in attracting middle-class, educated women to discussions about a puritanical form of Islam that critics say is akin to the Deobandism of the Taliban or the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.

But that doesn’t mean members of Al-Huda go on to become terrorists, said Muhammad Amir Rana, a terrorism expert at the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. “It is surprising, because organisations like Al-Huda are against violence and quite rational in their social view,” he said. “Malik’s profile is quite different from the other women we’ve seen attracted to Daesh [Islamic State].”

Like countless other Pakistanis, Malik’s family had abandoned their traditional Sufi-based Barelvi Islam that is seen as relatively tolerant. Deobandis and hardliners say the Barelvi traditions of visiting shrines, honouring deceased saints and listening to Sufi devotional music that characterised Islam in South Asia for centuries is blasphemous.

“My brother’s family cut off relations with us for 30 years,” said Malik’s step-aunt Hifza Bibi. “They converted and started to insult us, saying we do not believe in the oneness of Allah because of our love for saints.”

Like many others, the Malik family were helped in their religious journey by the experience of being guest workers in the oil-rich Arab world. Tashfeen Malik’s father, Gulzar Ahmad Malik, moved his family to Saudi Arabia when his daughter was young. For many of his generation, the growing of long beards and women wearing face veils are as much a sign of a higher economic status achieved by working abroad as of piety.

Moderate Barelvism is now in headlong retreat in Pakistan’s fast-growing provincial towns, including the family’s ancestral home, Karor Lal Esan in South Punjab.

The region has been a maelstrom of religious strife for decades, with militant Deobandi groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi waging a bloody sectarian campaign against the Shia minority, even as hardline seminaries proliferated.

Syed Nisar Hussain Shah, one of Malik’s pharmacology professors at Bahauddin Zakariya University, said there was nothing to suggest she was influenced by the turmoil outside the university gates. “She was a very quiet, hard-working student,” he said. “She always wore a veil and did not mix much with other students,” perhaps owing to her many years of living abroad.

Classmates said Malik became increasingly strict and “hardline” about her religious life during her time at the university. Ishaq Bhutta, a student involved in campus politics, said Bahauddin Zakariya University was not spared the religious strife that affects other universities. Student Islamists would “annually conduct violent demonstrations at the university just to retain their presence as a force in student politics”.

  And in 2013 a lecturer called Junaid Hafeez was jailed after students accused him of committing blasphemy on his Facebook page, and his lawyer was shot dead. But there was little in her biography to make Malik stand out, said Dawn journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha.

“Every Pakistani knows these preaching, self-righteous conservatives who think everyone else is following the wrong type of Islam, but you never expect them to indulge in violence,” he said. “This is one of the first times one has crossed the line into violence. There’s no way to know who is going to flip next.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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