Quiet anger of Islam's foot soldiers spells danger for attackers

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Quiet anger of Islam's foot soldiers spells danger for attackers

By Christopher Kremmer, Herald Correspondent in Lahore

Under lofty ceilings they bow their heads in prayer, kneeling on cheap straw prayer mats spread over cool terazzo floors - the soft-spoken foot soldiers of fundamentalist Islam who make Washington's war on terrorism fraught with danger.

The Koran is their guide, studied in Arabic - a foreign language in Pakistan but a unifying tongue for the world's Muslims, who now confront an enraged America.

But calm prevails here, even as Pakistan's military government is forced to drink from the poisoned chalice of helping the United States to punish its enemies in Taliban-ruled neighbouring Afghanistan.

Run by the country's largest religious party, the Jama'at-e-Islami, Mansoorah is a complex of schools, mosques and hospital.

Such institutions, which serve needs that Pakistan's crumbling state sector has failed to address, have helped the Islamists build popular support.

In the madrassa, or religious school, boys as young as five have come from Tajikistan, Malaysia, China and Afghanistan, to learn their holy book. With the church now providing the bulk of education in Pakistan, student opinion has taken on a sectarian hue.

"The Pakistan Government should not help the Americans kill fellow Muslims; the people will destroy them if they do," says a student, Zahed, to a ripple of excitement from the boys gathered around.

Another student, Hamid Ali, 18, sums up the view on the US strikes: "We think it's good. Innocent civilians should not have been killed, but America and other big countries must understand that people in Palestine and Kashmir suffer like this every single day."

Like most people, Jama'at's president, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, watched in despair on TV as the US horror unfolded. No sensible Muslim can support terror, he told the Herald, but the US should contain its anger.

"There is no evidence to justify targeting Afghanistan. That will just continue the past unjust policies, and there will be a reaction throughout the world."

At the more extreme end of Pakistan's Islamic spectrum sits the Lashkar-e Taiba, whose cadre include computer engineers, doctors and linguists.

Its schools teach science, engineering and computer studies, as well as Islam, laced with a fundamentalist Islamic world view.

Like the men who blasted the heart of the US last week, it is these educated Muslims, with access to global news, who sense the greatest injustice and are the most willing to volunteer for virtual suicide missions into Indian-administered Kashmir.

"When your soldiers die, you honour them," said Yahya Mujahid, a Lashkar spokesman. "When our people die as a sacrifice for their religion, for their country, why should we not do likewise?"

The Lashkar initially claimed responsibility for the US attacks, but then said its letterhead had been misused. It believes the attacks were part of a Jewish conspiracy to turn the Christian West against Islam.

Western reaction, it says, is one-sided. "The orphans of the trade centre will get milk," Mr Mujahid said. "In Iraq, the children also need milk, but can't get it."

Such groups - many of which have been nurtured by elements within Pakistan's military and intelligence community for decades - will be the cradle of any violent opposition to US retaliation.

The extent to which the backlash threatens the unity and integrity of the state founded 54 years ago as a home for the subcontinent's Muslims depends largely on the precise demands the US places on Pakistan.

"What the US is asking for is a complete U-turn in Pakistan policy," says an analyst, Mr Ahmed Rashid. "From arming and supplying the Taliban, we are now expected to bomb them with the Americans.

"The polarisation in society is so acute that this American action is going to pull it apart. No matter what happens, there's no smooth ride for Pakistan."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 16, 2001

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