President Musharraf’s decision to accept US request to provide certain facilities in combating terrorism and apprehending Osama bin Laden, the “prime suspect” in the September 11 terrorist outrages in New York and Washington, reflects his pragmatism and sagacity in the face of the emotional anti-US outbursts in pockets of religious extremists and sympathizers of the Taliban.
What a tough decision Musharraf had to take may be gauged from the fact that he had already been warned by the Afghan Defense Council that a permission to the US troops to land in Pakistan for operations in Afghanistan would trigger a civil war in the country. The Afghan Council comprises some three dozen religious and militant organizations. It had warned that Pakistan army would be the target of public wrath and hatred if its leadership allowed American troops into the country to attack “our Islamic neighbor”.
Pakistan is one of only three states that recognize the government of Taliban in Afghanistan. It was the front-line state and the main conduit for the international community’s material assistance to the Afghan freedom fighters in their decade long war against the Soviet super power. The Taliban are also generally believed to have been brought into being with the help of Pakistan which has continued till now to lend them moral and material assistance.
Despite all this, the Taliban have rejected the plea of Pakistan to hand over Osama to the US. For the fiercely independent Afghans such an act was inconceivable considering their code of conduct called Pakhtoonwali. A purely tribal code having no basis in religion, it lays down that even a murderer given shelter is a guest and to surrender him would be a breach of honor of the host. No wonder the 1,000 Afghan clerics who assembled in Kabul to consider the proposal to surrender Osama came out with the verdict that he should be requested to leave Afghanistan of his own accord but he should not be forced to leave the country even if it plunged the nation into a war with a super power.
The predicament of Pakistan is further compounded by the fact that several Afghan tribes adhering to the Pakhtoon code straddle the border between the two countries. Then the country is already hosting on its soil over 2.5 million Afghan refugees who have crossed the border to escape the famine and civil strife in their country. The number has swelled further with the clouds of war gathering thick over their land.
To the deplorably ignorant religious extremists of Pakistan, the verdict of the clerics of Afghanistan against surrendering Osama is rooted in religion and not in Pakhtoonwali! A section of the US media too has been giving a religious spin to the motives of the suicide hijackers to incite the sentiments of the American public and to divert their attention from the Arab-Israel conflict which is essentially for land and political power. Yasser Arafat’s wife is a Christian, so is Hanan Ashravi, the lady who has often served as the spokesperson of the Palestinians.
The hijackers, whose profiles have appeared in the media, gave the impression of being not even practicing Muslims. They were wining, womanizing individuals with large sums of money at their disposal. Some of them frequented strip-tease clubs.
The Taliban, nurtured with Pakistan’s material, moral and diplomatic support, had little compunction in threatening to invade Pakistan if it joined the international community and the US against the terrorist groups anchored in their land.
Their code of honor outweighed for them all the sacrifices made by Pakistan since the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979. And, their interpretation of Islam has put a terrifying face on a peace-loving, compassionate religion.
Pakistan does not share their views that make fundamental human rights and civil liberties seem irreconcilable with Islam. Women are repressed savagely by them and treated like chattel. Other religions and their places of worship excite their antagonism. They do not seem to realize that their own religion -Islam- is one of the most tolerant creeds of the world. Pakistan’s plea to spare from demolition the Bhuddist statues at Bamian was, therefore, rejected off hand by them.
In the claustrophobic world of the clerics, there is no place for arts, sciences, films, videos or even music. TV sets stand prohibited.
The Taliban contagion has aggravated the sectarian fissures in Pakistani society. The Taliban who rule over 95% of Afghanistan are Sunnis, while their opponents of the Northern Alliance who rule the remaining 5% are mostly Shias.
In Pakistan, where both sects had lived for decades peacefully, Sunnis have been murdered in their mosques, Shias in their places of worship. The present government has recently banned the sectarian setups. But, the bitterness lingers on in the psyche of people who continue living in fear, looking over the shoulder all the time.
Afghanistan became a safe haven for such sectarian terrorists and other criminals. The situation had already reached a breaking point by the time the ghastly attacks in New York and Washington brought it to a point where a decision could be postponed no longer.
President Mussarraf has courageously taken that decision. The two main political parties, PPP and Muslim League, leaders of public opinion in various walks of life and many religious scholars are behind him. But a vocal minority of obscurantist, semi-literate religious groups has launched campaigns protesting against the decision. In a protest rally in Karachi on Sept. 18, students of over 500 seminaries took part. Heavy contingents of police and paramilitary forces had to be used to stop the excited mob from proceeding to the US consulate. Similar rallies have been called in other cities too. The people of Pakistan are deeply attached to their religion and their emotions can be easily stirred by the rabble-rousers.
This gives an idea of the magnitude of the challenge to the present regime.
Although President Musharraf has been working assiduously to rally public opinion behind his decision through persuasion, the wayward religious bigots seem bent on their mischief. The scenario in Pakistan carries several omens of internal strife.
Fortunately, the country is currently under a military ruler who has an excellent military machine at his command to take care of the zealots’ threats of a civil war. But, the time has come for the society to take radical decisions on its agenda for the future.
Would Gen. Musharraf, an avid admirer of Kemal Ataturk, be able to don the mantle of a reformist to retrieve the society from the clutches of the reactionary elements and feudal oppressors and unleash the cooped up energies of a hardworking nation with an immense potential for growth and progress? Would he be able to seize the moment and take his people to the right side of history?