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Sound and Fury Signifying Much
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
Recently, a friend—a diehard film buff—remarked that Hollywood’s eternal search for the next great villain should lead directly to Osama bin Laden, and the Islamic world at large, who, in this post-September 11th world, have come to symbolize all that was and is evil.
However, he added, there was a catch: Depicting Muslims and Islamic nations in this fashion could pose a dangerous threat. Somehow, it was all right for James Bond to wage war against the Russians, but taking on the Islamic world is a different ball of wax. The slightest off-color remark, and who knows? The rules, it seems, are different, and evident in the U.S. and the rest of the world’s cautionary dealings with Islamic nations and their supporters.
Even prior to September 11th, the Islamic world had been a ticking bomb, and its roots (putting the Palestinian-Israeli issue aside) can be traced to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, when a septuagenarian cleric toppled a 2,500-year-old monarchy and firmly placed himself in power. The seeds of fundamentalism may have been already strewn, but Iran?s revolution added more fuel to a smoldering fire. And if the bomb started ticking with Iran, it eventually exploded with a deafening roar on September 11th, 2001, when a group of hijackers slammed airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
In the wake of the horrendous attacks, the U.S. drew a line in the sand, demanding, rightly, that nations make their allegiances known: “You’re either with us, or against us,” was the cut-and-dry Washington message, and in particular, Pakistan (which had long championed the Taliban) fell under serious scrutiny.
In Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan, journalist Mary Anne Weaver offers a brilliant and insightful account of an important nation that is in the midst of a serious identity crisis, and its role as the “playground” of Muslim terrorists.
Established as a Muslim state by the British (as a result of India’s Partition of 1947), Pakistan has had a strife-ridden history. Its continuous conflicts with India over the Kashmir province nearly brought the two nuclear-missile-savvy nations to the brink of war in mid-2002. Pakistan’s long-standing interest in Afghanistan—first in aiding the mujaheddin (who were also funded and supported by the U.S.), then helping to empower the Taliban regime—have confirmed the nation as a thorn in the side of the U.S., who now fear that Pakistan may be harboring al-Qaeda operatives who have filtered through the Afghan-Pakistani border. The brutal kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl helped seal this sentiment in stone. (Not to mention that many believe that bin Laden is actually hiding somewhere in Pakistan.)
As Weaver explains: “[A]lthough the theater of operation against them [al-Qaeda] is now, once again, in Afghanistan, the real battleground in the years to come will be Pakistan.” While unraveling the tale of Pakistan’s woes, Weaver cleverly connects all the dots, so to speak, tying in lucid analyses of Osama bin Laden and the role of al-Qaeda in the region, and Pakistan’s strategic importance to the U.S. government. The significant question, as Weaver writes, is:
What are the increasingly dangerous scenarios facing Pakistan if General Pervez Musharraf [the Pakistani ruler] fails in his attempts to reform his ancient land? The country’s true military hard-liners will take over; the religious hard-liners will take over, and Pakistan will become a theocracy like Iran; or the country will be faced with complete chaos and fall apart. Pakistan could well become the world’s newest failed state—a failed state with nuclear weapons.
Weaver’s descriptions of Musharraf depict a devout military man who has been positioned between a rock and hard place, and the question remains whether Musharraf can steer Pakistan on the right track and prevent impending chaos. In Pakistan’s elections in October 2002 (which were reputedly rigged), fundamentalist Islamic parties and secularists boasted a strong showing, indicating the country’s growing anti-American/pro-Islamic sentiments. Pakistani-U.S. relations are touchy at best, and the nuclear weapons issue has been a long-standing bone of contention between the two nations. In addition, the surge of fundamentalist popularity can only further strain diplomatic relations.
Pakistan is depicted as a nation of contradictions, replete with pockets of thriving gun and drugs cultures and prone to acts of terrorism. (According to Weaver, “As early of 1987, of 777 terrorists recorded worldwide, 90 percent took place in Pakistan.”) The author also portrays the inner turmoil of Pakistan, delving into its turbulent political history, with memorable chapters devoted to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first “popularly elected prime minister in the history of Pakistan,” who was cruelly executed by the order of Zia ul-Haq who had replaced him by staging a military coup. The Bhutto legacy, however, not only lived on, but gained full momentum when, after Zia’s death in a plane crash, Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, would emerge as Pakistan’s second popularly elected prime minister. One of Pakistan‘s best chapters is devoted to the Bhutto legacy, which includes the author’s in-depth interviews with Benzir Bhutto.
In a land where tribal laws and Islamic traditions hold sway, the irony of Benzir Bhutto’s victory offers another side of Pakistan seldom seen. As Weaver writes, Bhutto has “an extremely well-stocked mind, full of feminist literature, peace marches, the Oxford Union, and with a very liberated social life. She is also part feudal Sindh, a haughty aristocrat, the daughter and granddaughter of immensely wealthy landlords, whose inheritance gave her the right to rule.” In defining Pakistan, however, it’s important to note whether Benazir’s victory was due to her father’s looming legacy, or if her popularity was based on her own merits.
Weaver makes an excellent point of drawing our attention to the bin Laden-Pakistan connection, referring to the U.S. worry that “al-Qaeda was regrouping not only in the tribal lands but also in the major urban centers of Pakistan.” She presents a vivid (albeit disturbing) portrait of the Saudi multimillionaire who has taken on the ” political mantle of militant Islam,” and how he transformed himself (and became the bin Laden of today) after visiting Pakistan in 1980. The gaunt, bearded, reclusive militant, whose trail of destruction has stunned and angered the world, is the Bush Administration’s number-one foe—an enemy whom the U.S. believes can be captured and punished with the cooperation of Pakistan.
As a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker and author of A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam, Weaver is very much in her element, and her expertise of the region and her subject is apparent. Washington policy wonks should read Pakistan to develop a clear understanding of not only Pakistan and its significant role in the region, but the “why’s” and “how’s” of bin Laden and his followers, and the peculiar powers of Islamic militancy. Everyone should read the book to make some sense of a troubled and misunderstood region of the world whose jarring rage and fury are in dire need of immediate attention.
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