How would you like to be turned into a meme? To have your photo plastered all over social media, on coffee mugs and T-shirts? Maybe you’re thinking, “Cool. How much will I get in royalties?” Nothing. You will get nothing in royalties. Furthermore you will be presented as the face of evil, the devil himself-and your image will be combined with degrading words and photo-shopped into disgusting situations.
I noticed the face of Muslim Rage Boy popping up so often that I began to wonder if he was an actor. He was Chechen, he was ISIS, he was Hamas-he was planning a terrorist event near you. As it turns out, he is a real person named Shakeel Ahmad Bhat who goes to protests within walking distance of his modest home in Kashmir, a disputed piece of real estate in India/Pakistan? (That’s the dispute.) Indian paramilitary controls the area with brutal efficiency.
The paramilitary burst into Shakeel’s home when he was a kid and threw his sister out an upstairs window, breaking her spine…but let the man who spoke to him tell the story:
In the early Nineties, thousands of young Kashmiris streamed over the border to Pakistan to take up arms against India. Shakeel, just 13, decided to join them. He was so small he had to be carried on an older boy’s shoulders when he went up to the mountains. In Muzaffarabad he was taken to a snow-covered training camp run by the Pakistani army in conjunction with the militant group Al-Umar Mujahideen. Armed with an AK-47, he returned to Srinagar hoping to drive out the Indian army.
“I thought Kashmir should have the right to self-determination,” he told me. Shakeel was not a very good militant. When I asked him how many people he had killed, he looked embarrassed. “I gave scares but I never killed anyone,” he said. “I couldn’t. I never hurled a grenade in a public place.”
His greatest achievement was opening fire on the cavalcade of a visiting Indian government minister. Even when his team caught a police informant, Shakeel called for him to be set free. “I thought I would set an example. Forgiveness is better than killing.”
In 1994, when he was 16, he was arrested and taken to a military barracks. Of the 20 boys and young men who had crossed the border to Pakistan with him, only eight were still alive. Shakeel was tortured. He was stripped, doused with water and given electric shocks. A nail was pushed through his jaw (he showed me the scar). His head was immersed in water.
When he was released, he remained under police surveillance. An injury to his right arm as a result of the torture had left him unable to lift anything and he has relied on his brothers to support him since then. Shakeel is still unemployed and says he feels as if he is 110 years old.
Not long after his release, the paramilitary Special Task Force came to the house to look for Shakeel but he was not there. They beat his 75-year-old father instead, leaving him with a broken leg; he spent the rest of his life bedridden.
While we were talking, one of Shakeel’s brothers brought in a pot of sweet tea and a plate of cakes. Since there was no furniture in the room, he spread out a plastic tablecloth on the floor and served me tea. It was evening by now, and the Kashmiri night was going to be cold. The brother brought in a rug and spread it over my legs. Shakeel’s understanding of the world is limited by his inability to read or write. He likes going to demonstrations and has an ambition to start a political party. “But not to be the puppet of Pakistan or India,” he insisted.
He sometimes watches Al Jazeera English on television and although he cannot comprehend much of what is said, he told me he can work out what is going on from the images on screen and from what his brothers have told him. If something upsets him, he organises a demonstration. He seems to be quite an idealist. To my surprise, Shakeel seemed to have no time for Bin Laden. “I heard that planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. I thought it was very bad that so many civilians had been killed.
When the Islamic Rage Boy phenomenon took off and Shakeel had his face reproduced all over the world, the local police got worried and brought him in for questioning.”They had photocopies from the internet which they showed to me.” They told Shakeel to stop going on demonstrations but he refused.
He says he was brought before one of Srinagar’s most senior police officers, who offered him an administrative job in the government, and said he would find him a girl to marry. I believe him – Indian authorities have a habit of trying to rehabilitate militants who are no longer an obvious threat.”They said they would drop all the cases against me if I quit going to demos.” He refused.
Did he ever use the internet? “I don’t have knowledge of it. I cannot go to the internet shops and spend 30 rupees an hour.
I never board a bus, I walk to the city centre if I am going to a protest. I don’t smoke and I don’t take tea from tea stalls. If I need some money, I have to ask my brothers to give it to me.” Since he is unable to read properly, I had presumed that Shakeel would have a limited idea of the extent of his internet fame. But he showed me a pair of folders. Some friends had trawled through different sites and printed off computer-altered pictures of him.
Shakeel leafed through the pages: Islamic Rage Boy on clothes, being force-fed a pork chop, as a vampire, as a beer bottle, as a woman in a bikini, as ‘Jihady Idol’, as ‘Adolf Mohammed Rage Boy’, distended and jabbing his finger at a photographer above a quote from Christopher Hitchens: “It’s impossible to satisfy Rage Boy and his ilk. It’s stupid to try.” One picture showed what looked like an American preacher holding a microphone while wearing a Rage Boy baseball cap. Shakeel stopped on an image of his face superimposed on a pig.
He looked profoundly shocked and upset by this picture. What did he feel?
“I surely get hurt when I see these pictures,” he said. “This is terrorism for me. The people who do this are showing their own culture, so why do they tell us that we are uncivilised?’