By Rajendra Prabhu
One more beheading of a foreign hostage-this time of a South Korean in Iraq by Al Qaeda´s terror squad entrenched in Baghdad itself-has sent a message to American Administration as well as to the Saudi establishment. The escalation of the threat to foreigners in Saudi Arabia after the attack at al-Khobar and bombings in Riyadh and other places targeting foreigners working in Saudi Arabia is meant to drive out foreign experts from that country and cripple the economy and thereby bring the royal regime to its knees.
Osama bin Laden is very much in the business of competitive fanaticism and naturally his target is the Saudi royal establishment as much as or even more than President Bush or the Americans. In fact, the grand plan of the Saudi renegade bin Laden is now evident to the Americans: by getting a foot on the door of Saudi Arabia he could bring the Americans to the heel.
These attacks inside Saudi Arabia have had another impact also. More and more local people are beginning to trace the success of extremist terrorism to the intolerance and narrow grooves within which education and culture in that country moves. New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman drew attention to this in a recent article in his paper quoted an Arabic professor at King Saud University asking a fundamental question: The narrow grooves within which the Saudis have been educated with no contact with other civilisations and faiths, makes them easy and passionate recruits for religious extremism of the Osama bin Laden variety. Majority of the 19 extremists involved in the 9/11 attacks were Saudis.
There is another view also which looks quite plausible. Fareed Zakaria, editor of international affairs in Newsweek magazine and the illustrious son of an illustrious Indian Muslim intellectual and former minister, Dr Rafiq Zakaria, in his latest book, The Future of Freedom, says that the language of opposition in the tightly controlled Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia expresses itself as the language of religion. Religion has moral absolutes but politics needs compromise, he points out.
Again, the accusing finger is at the Saudi regime, as other analysts from Francis Fukuyama to Bernard Lewis have done. He also demonstrates how the fatal attraction of Muslim masses in these countries towards extremism could be cured by liberalising regimes: Malaysia, Turkey, Jordan are countries where young men have not been won over by this fatal attraction. Afghanistan might prove despite many tough challenges the capability of a liberal Islam (women´s right for education, for participation in politics, for holding offices, etc.) to stop the drift towards illiberal religion.
The narrow grooves within which the Saudis have been educated with no contact with other civilisations and faiths, make them easy and passionate recruits for religious extremism of the Osama bin Laden variety.
For years the American establishment was overlooking the consequences of the intolerant extremism in which the young in Pakistan were being nurtured through the religious schools.
But in Pakistan, the successive military regimes and fanatic clerics have formed an explosive mix. A late attempt by President Pervez Musharraf to extricate his regime out of the latter after 9/11 is forcing his own proteges of one time to turn against him, threatening to tear the country created in the name of religion apart in that very name. For years the American establishment was overlooking the consequences of the intolerant extremism in which the young in Pakistan were being nurtured through the religious schools, funded largely by the Saudis.
Referring to the bitter legacy of the Cold War in which America went all out to support undemocratic and most conservative regimes in the whole of the Middle East crescent, in the name of containing the Soviet threat, Adam Garfinkle, editor of The National Interest in the autumn issue of the magazine, in 2002, explained how the Americans have fallen from the frying pan to the fire in substituting the Soviet threat with the extremist one now. In Cold War, US faced Soviets but they were reasonable leaders. But what has America got now, after the Soviets are gone? A more horrible scenario. ?Now we have suicidal fanatics who, with nothing earthly to lose, maybe essentially undeterrable, and who may nonetheless devise ways and kill us as effectively as any smart H-bombs would have done.?
If there is one man who has effectively used this fear of Americans to his own advantage, that is General Musharraf. All the time Pakistan was making the bomb, the US Administration considered it nothing more than an aberration of its favoured son who was its big prop in the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. Even ten years after the Soviets pulled out from Kabul, the American establishment ignored the fact that religious extremism was fanning all over Pakistan and that the entire Islamabad establishment was behind both the Taliban in Afghanistan and the violent religious extremism in Pakistan itself. General Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, projected this extremism as freedom fighters of Kashmir spilling over into Pakistan. And the US Administration more or less accepted this picture, despite the well researched reports in American newspapers themselves about the real aim of this Islamic extremists. For instance, in her article in the prestigious magazine of the US Establishment for Foreign Affairs (November-December 1999), Harvard researcher, Jessica Sterns gave a detailed account of the virus infecting the Pakistan society and how they were targeting beyond Kashmir to New Delhi itself. It was only after 9/11 that the US eyes were opened to the danger of Al Qaeda doing the ultimate: getting a nuclear bomb inside the US and then blackmail the world. This led to the focus on Pakistan as the most possible source and then onwards to A.Q. Khan and the discovery of his clandestine travels to Khandahar. Aided by information culled from the Taliban detainees after that regime was run over and removed, the terror roadmap was clearly laid out.
President Musharraf´s journey from being the bad boy of the American establishment to its favourite started with 9/11. The US needed his help in getting the bombs rain on the Taliban regime and ground support for the attack on it. The General needed the American support to rescue his State at that time in dire economic straight. So the big deal came to be struck and the General moved from being the bad boy ( remember how President Clinton slighted him by making only a stopover in Pakistan and lecturing him on values of democracy in 2000) to its poster boy. The more he moved in that direction the more the extremists hands fed by him once became his political enemies.
Time magazine (January 26, 2004) reported that in 2001, Musharraf had even tried to unite all the different Kashmiri militant groups under the Jaish-e-Muhammad leader, Maulana Azhar. But last December, the President was twice a target of deadly attacks on him in which he survived miraculously. Azhar´s group is now found to be the perpetrators of the crime. The magazine pointed out that despite the General´s well publicised steps against extremist groups after 9/11, ?when it came to Jaish-e-Muhammad, Musharraf acted like a parent in denial after his favourite son turned delinquent.? Time report has brought out the long-standing connection between the Jaish and al-Qaeda.
The two unsuccessful attacks on the General himself and the environment of gun running and violence that prevails in Pakistan in the context of the roots that al-Qaeda remnants have put up in the tribal belt of Waziristan, the fact that the brain behind 9/11 Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, arrested finally in March last year, has been hiding in Pakistan for months before and after the 9/11 event, have all combined to put Musharraf at the centre stage of US policy. The question that the US Administration is asking is how could the extremists be prevented from reaching out to the nuclear material in Pakistan in case the General loses the battle for his survival?
It is significant that the Pakistani police arrested over 35 suspects after the second attempt on the General.
Also across the whole Islamic world, it is this linkage between religion and extremism that is worrying even moderate Islamic regimes and scholars, liberals and opinion-builders in Islamic countries. From Indonesia to UK and France, the free use of religious places for propagating the most extremist form of Islam forces governments to enter these places to flush out the offenders. It appears the community leaders who could prevent this are either helpless or silent.
The attacks on the life of the General have helped him to draw some sympathy from the Pakistani public on the one hand and entrench himself further with the Americans as the one man standing between chaos and extremist take-over of Pakistan, on the other. But the events as much in Pakistan as elsewhere in the Middle East crescent are raising the barrier for the American establishment. The latest assessment, as Garfinkle puts, it is NOT that poverty and disinformation cause terrorism, ?but that they provide terrorism with literal and psychological support structures.?
It is a veritable Pandora´s box that seems to prevail in the entire stretch of both Muslim majority and minority areas across different continents. Liberals like Thomas Friedman of the NYT stress that the answer to the dilemma in transforming the oppressive regimes and take large chunks of population out of those ?support structures? of terrorism at the same time without letting a cleric-led regime replace a royal or military dictatorship, is to promote moderates. Friedman wrote in his newspaper six months back that the remedy was to ?strengthen the moderates in the Arab-Muslim world to fight the war of ideas against the forces of intolerance within their own civilisation-which is where the real war on terrorism will either be won or lost.? But the growth of this middle class depends largely on the growth of the economy and its diversification, and opposing these form the core of the extremist agenda with its romantic attachment to a system of primal justice that simple people could easily respond to. It is a chick-and-egg question again. The liberals are pointing to success of democracy in economically prosperous Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, for instance, in preventing extremism from getting a foothold there.
The recent moves in Pakistan are providing a measure of hope. The middle class and moderate Islam is becoming more vocal. The people brought up on the diet of projecting India as the permanent enemy (Bhutto´s thousand-year war with India, for instance) are beginning to see a different neighbour who has gone out of the way to offer negotiated peace. The critics of Musharraf and the military regimes are not accepting extremist Islam as the alternative. Extremism however would not give up that easily though its nourishment from the military regime is now getting cut off one by one. Extremism aided by terror would seek to place economic progress and a liberal society which emphasises individual choice, as a denial of Islam. And that not only in Muslim majority countries, but also in Muslim minority countries.
The question has to be asked why Muslim minorities in UK, France, Germany, etc., are frustrated and not able to grab the opportunities offered by these prosperous countries. The critical problem-both political and economic-is at this point where religion is placed in opposition to the compulsions of industrial culture and the demands of equity, especially gender equity, of a liberal democracy. That point can be crossed only by Muslims themselves, by their leadership that must redefine what is essential in their religion and therefore cannot be modified, from what is historic and therefore could be modified. Far too long, have they left that job to be done by a bunch of vested interests and selfish manipulators.