DAWN - Opinion; December 21, 2001

Published December 21, 2001

The cave men of Tora Bora: WASHINGTON NOTEBOOK

By Tahir Mirza


IT HAS been an odd sort of week of mixed emotions for Americans. With Al Qaeda’s Tora Bora complex besieged, and finally captured, the common feeling was that this was the end game, an expression used again and again in media reports.

The military campaign in Afghanistan, from the US point of view, had gone extremely well. But the nagging question, as a new week dawned, was: Where’s Osama bin Laden and Mulla Omar?

Most Americans believe that the campaign will not be considered successful till the two men are captured or killed, Osama particularly so. But as of this writing the fate of the two was unclear.

At every Pentagon briefing over the last few days, this has been the most covered ground. Is Osama bin Laden still in Afghanistan? Maybe, may be not. Has he escaped from Tora Bora? Maybe, may be not. Is he dead, buried in some cave? Maybe, may be not.

Bringing the Osama saga to a definite conclusion has, apart from other obvious reasons, now become a domestic political compulsion for the Bush administration. A long delay could recoil on the government, and the current high approval rating for President George Bush could slip. More people may ask what has been gained by sending American soldiers to fight in Afghanistan if Osama and Mulla Omar are not found, dead or alive. The Scarlet Pimpernel allegory (here, there and everywhere) has been lent a somewhat grim connotation.

There was much talk on Monday and Tuesday that Osama might have slipped into Pakistan. If this happens, it will mark another ominous development for Pakistan. There may be US troops in hot pursuit and renewed American focus on elements within Inter-Services Intelligence believed to be still sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda cause despite General Pervez Musharraf’s backing for the US war. There was also a lurking suspicion that as far as Mullah Omar was concerned, he might have been helped to hide by Pakhtun tribes otherwise allied with the US and the new administration in Kabul.

Pakistan has an added worry. Following last week’s attack on the Indian parliament, the distinction that Gen Musharraf has sought to make between terrorist organizations on the one hand and militant parties based in Pakistan with links to Kashmir on the other is being seen less clearly by Washington. There’s a logic to the “fight against terrorism” that may not be considered sound by everyone, but which has its own dynamics.

The parliament incident has caught Pakistan at a sensitive moment, and it has, in political terms, gone so entirely in India’s favour and against the Musharraf government that its sponsorship should be an interesting subject of speculation. One day, everything seems to be going Pakistan’s way; the next, everything against.

* * * *

THE first organized survey of American Muslims since the September 11 attacks shows that they are split almost down the middle in their views about the US-led military campaign against Afghanistan, with a bare majority, 51 per cent, supporting it and with 43 per cent opposed to it.

The survey was carried out by the reputed firm of pollsters, Zogby International, for Muslims in the American Public Square (MAPS), a three-year research project that began in 1999 with the support of the Pew Charitable Trust and is based at Georgetown University’s Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. It is said that 1,781 persons were interviewed between November 8 and November 19, including Afro-American Muslims. Thirtytwo per cent of those contacted

were Muslims of South Asian origin, with 17 per cent from Pakistan, and 46 per cent of Arab origin.

But there is a small problem with the survey, which was released on Wednesday. The random contacts made by the pollsters have resulted in an apparent income-group imbalance. A full 28 per cent of the respondents earned more than $75,000 a year, and 22 per cent from $50,000 to $75,000.

Thus, the survey’s finding that 58 per cent of American Muslims back President Bush’s handling of the September attacks and that the two-thirds agree with the US administration’s assertion that the war is being fought against terrorism, not Islam, might have been quite different if the ratio was reversed in favour of low-income groups: Pakistani taxi-drivers in New York, for instance, might have quite different views about the Bush administration’s post-September 11 actions and policies.

And even among the well-off majority surveyed, 57 per cent believe the attitude of Americans toward Muslims and Arabs since September 11 has been unfavourable. A majority (52%) says individuals, businesses or religious organizations in their community have experienced discrimination since then, and the most common kind of discrimination has been verbal abuse, cited by one-quarter (25%) of the respondents.

Some 61 per cent feel the attacks could have been prevented, almost two-thirds (64%) that the campaign in Afghanistan could lead to further terrorist attacks and over two-thirds (68%) that the campaign could lead to a more unstable Middle East.

Over 79 per cent say American foreign policy in the Middle East led to the attacks, while 67 per cent suggest that a change in US policy in the Middle East is the best way to wage the war against terrorism.

A vast majority (84%) of American Muslims agrees that the US should support a Palestinian state; 70 per cent advocate reducing US financial support to Israel; 61 per cent are in favour of reducing American backing for undemocratic regimes in the Muslim world; and almost two-thirds (63%) agree with the secretary of state’s description that the Kashmir is the central issue between India and Pakistan. One-fifth (21%) has no opinion on the issue.

***********

MUSLIMS in America celebrated Eid on Sunday. Because the festival fell on a holiday, the Eid congregations were bigger than usual. Perhaps also the beating that Muslims have received since September 11 inspired larger numbers to turn up for prayers, both as a show of strength and solidarity as well as, subconsciously, a gesture of defiance against surveillance and racial profiling.

An echo of September 11 was seen in the unusually strict security measures adopted at the main congregational places in the Washington area, the Islamic Centre in downtown DC, a short distance from the Pakistan embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, and the Expo Centre in the suburbs near Dulles international airport.

Everyone had to go through searches by metal detectors, carried out by volunteers provided by community organizations, and the police were also on duty in the background.

This was an understandable precaution in view, among other things, of the aborted bomb plot in California where two members of the extremist Jewish Defence League were arrested for planning to attack a mosque.

At the Expo Centre, at least four ‘jamaats’ were held, with maybe three to four thousand people for each of them, reflecting the diversity of Islam. There were Africans in their colourful flowing robes, the odd Moroccans wearing the fez, and of course Pakistanis in the usual shalwar-kameez. Native black Muslims also had a sizable presence.

Muslim women from the subcontinent do not have a tradition of going for Eid prayers, and therefore there were few of them as compared to women from other nationalities.

The sound system was terrible, and many people didn’t hear the well-meaning platitudes about Islam and Muslims from legislators invited to address the congregations.

This may be a very personal reaction, but for temporary residents and transient itinerant visitors from the subcontinent, Eid abroad seems to have a slightly contrived air to it.

The motions are gone through, and a tremendous effort is made to create a festive atmosphere. But the cultural context is missing.

Above all, you are conscious that you stand out as a minority in your host society, but you miss also the warmth of neighbourhood visits, the confusion about Eid prayer timings, the “chaand raat” throngs of women shopping for bangles and having their hands dyed with henna, the ‘sehri’ drum-beaters coming for their Eid money, the tussle with the tailor over getting back Eid dresses in time, even the visit to graveyards after the Eid prayers, with many of the graves marking loved ones who had stood with you in the congregation the year before (morbidity is never far from the Muslim character, is it?).

However, the Muslims who have decided to live abroad have perhaps made their own compromises and developed an Eid culture of their own. It is not for an outsider to be sanctimonious about Muslim mores here. At least the Muslims here can openly confront prayer leaders who wish to exploit religion to promote their personal political agendas. So perhaps one should say happy Eid, and be done with it.

No more show of miracles

By Jafar Wafa


IT is a well-known fact, which bears repetition, that scientific sense dawned on the post-Renaissance Christendom and the strong grip of supernaturalism loosened as a direct result of the advent of Islam in Europe after the fall of Constantinople and the slow but steady conquest of the southern part of this continent by the Osmanali Turks.

What is left of Christianity as a religion in today’s West is the antithesis of belief in ‘miracles’ and ‘mysteries’, around which all poetry and plays revolved in Medieval Europe; which, apart from providing some kind of entertainment, were meant to strengthen popular faith in Christian supernaturalism and adoration of the saints and sages whom the Church portrayed as persons possessing supernormal powers.

It is, therefore, a poignant irony that it is now the turn of Islamic society, in the present age of enquiry and research, to repose faith in supernaturalism and even quote the holy Scripture to support the notion that miracles will happen and heavenly help will be forthcoming to make an ill-equipped, ill-armed band of ‘holy warriors’ triumphant over an adversary far outstripping them in the quality and quantity of the latest machines of war and in the availability of material resources.

The most unfortunate outcome of such belief is not the destruction and devastation suffered but the widespread scepticism and shock arising from the events on ground unfolding strictly according to the realistic estimate of the ‘secularists’ and contrary to the idealistic picture painted by the priestly class. The gullible masses, who were swept away by the wave of eloquent oratory of the clerics are, mentally, the worst sufferers as they find it difficult now to reconcile the actual happening with what was so authoritatively predicted from the pulpit.

It may help many to regain their shaken confidence and rehabilitate their faith if they are told, on the authority of the Quran, that miracles of the kind that are associated with the Biblical prophets lost their relevance with the dawn of the age of reason that coincided with the birth of Islam. One may refer to Surah 3: Ayat 183 to find that when the unbelievers demanded of our holy Prophet (peace e upon him) that he should also perform some sort of miracle to convince them that he was the true Messenger of Allah, the revelation came: “Say unto them that Messengers came unto them with miracles even previously, but the unbelievers slew them instead of recognising them as prophets sent by God.”

One can also read Surah 6: Ayat 35, which says that when the unbelievers demanded that, to convince them, the holy Prophet demonstrate portents like descending into the depths of the earth or ascending to the sky by means of a ladder, the Almighty closed the debate regarding miracles in these words. “If Allah willed, He could have brought them all to the guidance without a show of miracles.”

When a mighty coalition of nations, large and small, believers and non-believers, was cobbled up to annihilate the imaginary Goliath and his global ‘network’, our clerics issued the religious edict (fatwa) of Jihad against the obviously unbeatable adversary. The ‘faithful’ were made to believe that, ‘as promised by Allah’, a miracle will take place and, as in the fable, Jack will kill the giant. But, the end came and nothing of the kind happened.

We know it now that only a real miracle, a temporary suspension of the relevant laws of nature, would have produced a contrary result. The fact is that the denouement has vindicated the universally-accepted notion of causality — fire will burn, water will drown and the adversary’s superior weapons will destroy the ill-armed defender. Fire turned into flower for prophet Abraham, water did not drown Prophet Moses and a far superior army suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of only three hundred thirteen ill-armed companions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon all of them).

A rational mind will try to understand why these miracles happened. What the stakes were for mankind if the law of nature was allowed to operate. Had Prophet Abraham, whom the Quran calls ‘Imamun Naas’ (leader of mankind), the founder of the Syriac civilisation four thousand years ago, not survived, the human society would not have been what it is now. In the words of the eminent modern historian, Arnold Toynbee (‘A Study of History’):”the Syriac civilisation has three great facts to its credit: It invented the Alphabet, it discovered the Atlantic and it arrived at a particular conception of God which is common to Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam.”

Similarly, had Prophet Moses not been safely evacuated from Pharaoh’s land, there would have been no flowering of monotheistic faith and no Mosaic Law — the starting point of a comprehensive and codified set of laws for a civilised society to develop. And finally, had our Prophet and his small band of earliest believers not come our victorious in the first encounter with the heathens at Badr, there would have been neither the Islamic religion nor the great civilisation which has grown under its shadow.

The kind of Divine intervention that protected our holy Prophet at Badr was not forthcoming later at Uhud, as the very existence of Islam was not at stake then. Islam survived and gained strength after the reverses at Uhud, and its volunteer fighters became more conscious of discipline and strict compliance of the directives of the high command.

So, why equate any one else with the Prophets of Allah? Further, how can any one of the wise men in our Islamic Republic affirm authoritatively as to who among the bondsmen of Allah is really on the right path, or has devised the truly Islamic model of piety and polity when the stamp of approval by the consensus (Ijma) of the religious divines of the Ummah is not there. In fact, most of the Islamic states, including Saudi Arabia, have indicated their positive disapproval of the Taliban’s version of Islam.

Mixed signals

MORE than ever before, Americans are living on sound bites. Unfortunately, the bites are sending out different messages.

The other day I heard a high government official spokesman say, “Be calm and alert at the same time. Go about your business as you always do, but if you see anything suspicious, call the FBI.”

On the next channel, an anthrax expert said, “At it’s worst, if delivered by terrorists, it could kill thousands of people.”

I hit the TV clicker and the announcer said, “Only a few people in Florida and New York were exposed, so there is no reason for panic.”

Attorney General Ashcroft said, “We have our people on the scene right now. To show you can’t be intimidated by the enemy, go to a football game or a movie or just have a barbecue in the back yard.”

“It is time to move on,” the Pentagon spokesman said. “The Air Force and Navy are pounding Afghanistan day and night, hitting only military targets.”

The next channel showed the president in the Oval Office. He warned Americans not to have the jitters. “Don’t get carried away. Americans should not use this opportunity to pick on somebody who doesn’t look like you or doesn’t share your religion.”

He was upbeat, so I went to another channel where the announcer said that the FBI has warned there will possibly be more assaults on America. The Bureau said people should be calm, but at the same time highly alert. The FBI said they did not know where the attack would be coming from and would not reveal where they got their information.

I alternated between cool and panic. I wanted to believe I was safe from anthrax, at the same time I felt like I wanted to move to Canada.

My surfing continued. One station was telling me all our allies were steadfast and united. The next station said we could never keep our friends in the Muslim world if we bombed Iraq.

What confused me was that the experts each had a different opinion. One station had Henry Kissinger saying one thing, and Ariel Sharon saying the opposite.

I got a glass of water and then went back to the set. Intelligence sources said bin Laden was either hiding out in Kabul, holed up in a cave in the mountains, or had fled to Uzbekistan. It was good news.

But the evening news reported the food drops in Afghanistan were a bust and not getting to the people who need it. This was bad news.

I was about to throw in the towel when I finally hit a programme that didn’t make me panic or need to be vigilant. It was “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” For the first time I had a good night’s sleep.

—Dawn/Tribune Media Services

Reshaping Afghan policy

By Syed Talat Hussain


THIS is the time for Pakistan to cast its Afghanistan policy in a new mould. This policy should be so designed as to undo the past practice of putting all eggs in one basket and change its focus on the pursuit of a friendly government in Kabul.

But this has to be done in a manner that Afghanistan is not totally abandoned in the hope that our interests would be automatically guaranteed by honest brokers. Pakistan cannot disengage from Afghanistan. What it can do is to get constructively re-engaged.

It has become fashionable in the current circumstances to make a public case for “withdrawing from Afghanistan.” Officials are peddling the line to exorcise the ugly ghosts of the past, and failed, engagement. They are also doing it because “hands-off Afghanistan” is the in-phrase, the diplomatically correct thing to state. This is what the world wants to hear from us, and this is what we are saying to it. Any other suggestion would be taken as Pakistan’s renewed interest in interfering in Afghanistan, and we do not want that.

The point is well taken, but only up to a point. The reality is that it is not possible for Pakistan to turn its face away from the happenings across the Durand Line, even if temporarily, and then raise the profile of its policy after a hiatus of six months. Afghanistan needs constant attention.

Whether we, or the world, like it or not Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot escape each other. The over 2400 km long border, perforated by over a hundred entry point, tribal affinities straddling the two sides of the divide and a flourishing smuggling industry, besides history, bind the two in a manner that any suggestion of a disengagement, or a break for six months, looks silly.

And then there are refugees, both old and new. The largest to be hosted by any country in the world. It will take not months but years to send them all back, and till then the Afghans in Pakistan will be the bridge connecting the two countries at social, business and cultural levels.

Over and above all this heap of what can be called “natural, joining factors” sit formidable strategic interests. These interests can only be left unattended at a great cost of missing economic opportunities, imperilling national security and giving a free hand to those in Afghanistan who would want to isolate, and marginalize Pakistan. Just consider the swiftness with which India is moving on Afghanistan front and the point becomes clear.

It is a pity that we have been made to feel ashamed of having a long border with Afghanistan. Worse, we are feeling apologetic. Like post-Second World War Germany, Pakistan is being singled out for having made a mess of things. Yes Pakistan made mistakes, but then who did not? Whose hands are clean in Afghanistan? The international community which is pontificating from the high podium itself is the biggest culprit. Having used the jihadis for its own goals, it left them in Pakistan’s lap, switched off the aid tap, and unabashedly talked about compassion fatigue. There is no glory for anyone in Afghanistan’s immediate past.

The fact is that this geography, which now looks to be such an albatross around our necks, is a big advantage as well. Many countries in the world would give their right arm for having half of the geographical proximity that Pakistan has with an Afghanistan that is peaceful and stable. Because they know that this country is the pathway to the energy treasure trove of Central Asia, whose combined wealth of natural resources makes that region the most attractive business proposition in the coming years.

The long money help-line for Afghanistan from all over the world is indicative of the interest that the international community has here. From all the pointers available, this interest is likely to be durable and lasting, for it is driven largely by economic considerations. Many multinationals are drooling over the delicious prospect of making a kill once Afghanistan attains a measure of stability and tranquillity.

Diplomatically too, Afghanistan has emerged, as a result of the recent crisis, a chessboard of power politics and jockeying for regional influence. One measure of the importance of this part of the region is that it has become the centre of attention of two big nuclear powers (the US and Russia) one major nuclear power (China) and two regional nuclear states, Pakistan and India. The remaining nuclear states of the world are involved in the region indirectly and through proxies: Britain as the errand boy of the US-led alliance, France through its Northern Alliance and EU connection and Israel through India.

Nowhere else does one see such an enormous concentration of global attention and such a wide variety of immediate and conflicting interests. Iran is fearful of an extended US presence and looks with suspicion at the talk from the White House of extending the war against terrorism. China does not want extraneous influences to disturb the regional situation; that would stick a spoke in the wheel of its plan to ensure that nothing should detract it from sustaining its economic growth and expansion. India senses an opening for itself to extend the arch of its influence to incorporate along with Russia and Central Asian republics a friendly Afghanistan. These are formidable stakes. They will directly and decisively impact countries with borders with Afghanistan. Pakistan has the longest stretch of them all, those who think that Islamabad can stay aloof from the post-Taliban Afghanistan need a reality check. Pakistan has to remain engaged with Afghanistan.

Obviously, the new engagement has to be different from the old that has collapsed completely. If right lessons are learnt from the last engagement that Pakistan had with Afghanistan, the direction for the future course of action becomes clear. The new engagement has to be multi-dimensional and one that puts premium on cultivating all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. Pakhtuns too need to be cultivated afresh. The supposition that Pakistan is popular with Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group is unsound. For all that Pakistan has actually done for the Afghans, particularly the Pakhtuns, this group remains remarkably cold towards Islamabad.

Further, economic interaction sealed with official agreements and formal business deals is another way to get locked into a constructive relationship with Afghanistan — one that is not based on woolly ideas of “strategic partnership” or “Muslim brotherhood”, but is purely business — oriented, conducted in a business like fashion. Afghans are consummate traders and businessmen. They know how to protect the side of the bread that is buttered.

Pakistan’s private sector has a huge role to play in Afghanistan. A shared border is a wonderful starting point for shared business ventures in a vast variety of fields — from mining to construction. There is plenty of scope for humanitarian and voluntary work in Afghanistan and Pakistan can offer a tremendous wealth of such support. There is every reason for Pakistan to remain engaged with Afghanistan. A passive policy, carved in mourning over the failure of the past, and resigned to fate is out of sync with the demands of the new times. All these years Pakistan has been involved in Afghanistan for all the wrong reasons. Now it should do the same — for some right causes.

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