05.06.10

The Would-Be Bomber's Wife

The wife of the accused Times Square bomber lived a suburban life of shopping and Everybody Loves Raymond—until her handsome young husband became a monster. Asra Q. Nomani goes inside the world of Huma Mian.

For a window into the bifurcated lives of Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, and his American-born wife, Huma Mian, just look to the social-networking page Mian set up on Orkut.com, a popular site owned by Google. Mian’s Orkut profile takes you on a cross-cultural journey between Pakistan and the United States, with characters from Sesame Street’s Ernie to the Pakistani pop band Vital Signs making cameo appearances.

Over the years, she exchanged quips with relatives and friends on the site, their conversations filled with typical “ghetto Muslim speak” invoking Islamic prayers and salutations, such as as-salamalaikum (“peace be upon you”) and inshallah (“God willing”). On Mian’s site, she is bhaji (“older sister”) and her husband is “Faisal bhai” (an honorific of “brother” for an elder). None of this is unusual among a group closely tied to its Muslim identity.

Click the Image Below to See Photos of the Times Square Bomber’s Life and Plot

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But Mian is also an American kid—the immigrant girl next door. Her profile proclaims Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond her favorite shows. She posted a photo of the couple’s newborn daughter, Alisha, in a onesie with rabbit ears and a caption that read, “Bunny Wabbit.” She lists her “passions” as “SHOPPING!!”

The conversations and photos illustrate the straddled lives the couple led, like so many other young Muslims caught between traditional mores and the more libertine West.

Michael Sheehan: Watching the Terrorists Mian is the daughter of a successful Pakistani-American professional and his wife, who built a home in middle-class Aurora, a suburb of Denver that has attracted Pakistani immigrants since the 1960s. Shahzad is the son of a retired Pakistan vice air marshal, a high-ranking position in the country’s air force. Like the Christmas Day “undie bomber,” who was the son of a Nigerian business executive, these two hail from successful families.

That’s a cause for concern because, somehow, in the West, we are failing to give disenchanted, yet talented young Muslims nonviolent avenues for protest to lure them away from the temptations of “jihad cool.” And within Western Muslim communities, we are failing to lead the youth with inspired, peaceful interpretations of Islam.

Mian seems to have avoided temptations toward violence, even if her husband didn’t. In her Orkut profile, she describes herself as “not political” and someone who aspires to “party every night.” Mian had 12 “friends” on the networking site, earning her first “scrap,” or wall posting, in 2006 from “Mehwish,” who threw her a winking emoticon and told her, “Its sooo good to see u here at last our gang is growing.”

For her choice in music, Mian went '80s—Pakistani '80s. ”I love Vital Signs!!!!!!” she wrote. “I know nobody listens to ’em anymore but I still do.” The group formed in 1986 as General Zia-ul-Haq brought an Islamist agenda to the country, forcing many rock musicians underground.

Mian’s favorite song by Vital Signs, “Yeh Shaam” (“This Night”), is a dreamy 1989 ballad in which a man sings wistfully in Urdu to his lover, “This night will never come again.” It’s the Pakistani equivalent to Phil Collins’ 1984 release, “One More Night.” The “Yeh Saam” video remains a sentimental favorite.

Click the Image Below to Enlarge a Screengrab of Huma Mian's profile on social-networking site Orkut.com.

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It is on Orkut that Mian posted a photo of her husband, smiling handsomely from behind a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses, a wireless headset in his ear, as he drives a car on a road trip to Manhattan from their home in Connecticut. Her caption for the photo revealed a young woman in love. “What can I say,” she wrote. “He's my everything.”

In Manhattan, the couple had a photo snapped of them in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he in a jacket, collared shirt, and pants, and she in a fashionable long coat, a white scarf tied decoratively around her neck, but not over her hair. Significantly, because they hail from a culture that frowns on public displays of affection, the couple aren’t afraid to snuggle. She tucks her slender frame against him, and he wraps his arm around her. They both smile warmly. He has a certain polished air about him. She looks like the kind of person who would carry on an engaging conversation over a cup of tea. The caption: “Faisal n I.”

Mian took pride on her Orkut profile in being “desi,” or South Asian. Ethnicity and national identity mattered in this crowd. One Orkut friend of Mian’s hosted a communities page on the site called, “A Place for Pakhtoons Peshawar,” a reference to the Pashtun ethnic group living in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of the Afghan Taliban are Pasthun in ethnicity. One of Mian’s other friends is “dAng3rOus*aFRiDi,” a reference to Shahid “Boom Boom” Afridi, a Pashtun Pakistani star cricket player.

In another Orkut posting, a friend “Mehwish,” suggests a trip to Nathiyagali, a picturesque hill station in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier.

The ethnicity of the Mian family and the Shahzad in-laws, though, aren’t clear. Their friends on Orkut display a diverse range of Pakistani and American immigrant beliefs. One circulates a message warning people against playing Hindu prayer classics, because Hinduism is seen as a polytheistic religion in contradiction to the monotheistic tenets of Islam.

In another thread, a friend sends Mian a prayer called Salawat, which translates as: “O Allah, bless our Muhammed and the people of Muhammed, as you have blessed Abraham and the people of Abraham. Surely you are the Praiseworthy, the Glorious. O Allah, be gracious unto Muhammad and the people of Muhammed, as you were gracious unto Abraham and the people of Abraham. Surely you are the Praiseworthy, the Glorious.”

This same friend sent Mian an Ernie icon on the site, in which the classic Sesame Street character holds a sign saying, “Smile Plz.” It was a timeless “get well” message that reads poignantly now, as the friend writes: “We want to see our naughty Huma again in her full swing :)”

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Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She also wrote Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in West Virginia is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. She is writing a series of articles about "the gender jihad" on The Daily Beast. asra@asranomani.com