What drove Malik to kill in San Bernardino?

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

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Reading the psalm of Yeezy

Kanye West’s Sunday Services continue to gain popularity – but what’s really good?

Death toll rises as tinder-dry conditions fuel deadly California fires

An army of firefighters from across the country struggled in California to control 17 large-scale blazes

California stands to suffer if US-China trade war worsens

The world's two largest economies have squared off in a tit for tat trade war that threatens to disrupt international commerce

ANC Western Cape PEC member shot dead at his home

Elese Depouche and his wife were attacked while entering their home in Crossroads outside Cape Town. Police are investigating

The world’s taps are rapidly running dry

​The world has abundant fresh water but it is unevenly distributed and under increasing pressure, United Nations agencies say

For global water crisis, climate may be the last straw

Freshwater resources were already stressed before heat-trapping carbon emissions from fossil fuels began to warm Earth's surface and affect rainfall.

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Finance probe into the Ingonyama Trust Board goes ahead

The threat of legal action from ITB chairperson Jerome Ngwenya fails to halt forensic audit ordered by the land reform minister

Ailing Far East Rand hospital purchases ‘vanity’ furniture

Dr Zacharia Mathaba, who purchased the furniture, is a suspected overtime fraudster and was appointed as Gauteng hospital chief executive despite facing serious disciplinary charges

Eusebius McKaiser: Reject the dichotomy of political horrors

Senekal shows us that we must make a stand against the loud voice of the populist EFF and racist rightwingers

Seals abort pups in mass die-off

There are a number of factors — a pollutant, virus or bacteria or malnutrition — may have caused the 12 000 deaths on Namibia’s coast

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday