Mr. Friedman, Yes We Can but We Can't

Thomas Friedman's latest op-ed in the New York Times suggested that the Arab World and Muslims should stand up against the extremists and defeat them at their own turf. He said:

Arab and Muslims are not just objects. They are subjects. They aspire to, are able to and must be challenged to take responsibility for their world. If we want a peaceful, tolerant region more than they do, they will hold our coats while we fight, and they will hold their tongues against their worst extremists. They will lose, and we will lose -- here and there, in the real Afghanistan and in the Virtual Afghanistan.

While he has truly described the incompetence and inaction of the Muslims in combating extremism, his premise fall shorts on some core problems of the Islamic World. He has diagnosed the problem but has failed to mention an important aspect of this region. And that is freedom of speech.

There is practically no Islamic country where people are allowed to open their minds and hearts in public. They cannot even raise questions about their illegitimate governments and monarchies let alone raising voice against the extremists. Most of these extremists actually use this lack of freedom of speech to recruit from the Muslim World. They raise valid questions about the monarchies and dictatorships and then ask the disenfranchised youth to join their ranks. Even Al-Qaeda had its genesis in a strong opposition of the Saudi monarchy and Egyptian dictatorship but later graduated to a full-fledged terrorist outfit.

The situation is even worse in Pakistan, a supposedly fledgling democracy, as people have to fight a daily war of sustenance and thus find no time to combat extremists. Extremism and poverty are strange bedfellows. Jihadi outfits have set up seminaries in the poorest parts of Pakistan where they provide food, shelter and Islamic education to millions of students. Their poor and illiterate parents do not have any knowledge of Islam or what their children would be subjected to in these seminaries. They happily send them to these places as they can do away with a hungry mouth to feed.

There are hardly any people in Pakistan that actually raise their voices against the extremists. Pakistani media, despite all its recently attained freedoms, is reluctant to take on the challenge of Islamic extremism. As for the blogosphere and the Internet, most young Pakistanis think the other way round. Certain elements of the Pakistani media and bloggers are always eager to blame everything on the nexus of Israel, India and the United States.

These people have virtually taken hostage the public forums and media and always come up with their own theories related to extremism. Unfortunately, they have been able to brainwash common Pakistanis, especially the youth, to believe in what they are saying. There were some Islamic scholars that stood up against the Taliban but they were eliminated in suicide bombings. Since then, its all quiet at the theocratic front.

Despite the rampant suicide bombings in Pakistan, in which both the killers and victims are Muslims, people believe that the perpetrators of these attacks were either Hindus, Jews or Christians. There was a ray of light when a video of the Taliban lashing a girl in Swat leaked on the Internet. It became a sensation and rallied people behind the army offensive in that region.

It was, however, another video that changed the perceptions of common Pakistanis about the fight against the Taliban. It showed Pakistani military officers' brutality against the alleged Taliban and their supporters/relatives in a Swat police station. There were other reports of brutality and mass killings by Pakistani forces in Swat and this compounded the efforts of the 'nexus brigade' to malign the handful that were trying to educate Pakistanis about their real enemies.

As long as the youth of Pakistan continue blaming the 'infidels' for their wrongs, they will not be able to fight the extremist threat. This is not just the case of Pakistan but many other Islamic countries where popular media and bloggers have sided with the extremists and are doing their bidding. Iran might be an exception as the youth has just started realizing the fatal mistake of their parents of supporting an extremist Islamic regime in 1979. Iranian youth has a long way to go but at least it is on the right path. As for the others, there is little light at the end of the tunnel.