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PESHAWARIt is three days before the U.S. launched its first bombs into Afghanistan, and the workday has just ended in this Pakistani city on the Afghanistan border. A group of laborers and shopkeepers gathers, and talk turns to Osama bin Laden and the coming attacks against the Taliban. One after another, the men take turns denouncing the U.S. Some arguments are carefully reasoned; others, innuendo and rumor. Slowly the crowd's fervor builds. Men begin to push forward, their eyes furious, veins bulging in their necks. They call Bin Laden their brother, their hero. An American decides it is time to take his leave. As he stands, a shopkeeper has one last declaration: "This is a war between you and us," he says. "We will go on jihad, and we will win."
The man's readiness to die in a holy war may be an anomaly in this country of 140 million; his hostility toward the United States is not. Once the cornerstone of U.S. South Asia policy, Pakistan today must be bribed and browbeaten into going along with U.S. policy goals, and its inhabitants are deeply resentful and suspicious of the United States. In dozens of interviews around this country last week, Pakistanis across all tribal, religious, and economic backgrounds spoke about U.S.-Pakistan relations with a mixture of sadness and hostility.
For 40 years, until 1990, Pakistan prided itself on being America's closest friend in the region; U.S. policies in the last decade have erased that trust. Among the many injustices Pakistanis feel have been visited upon them by the U.S., the most commonly heard were: U.S. backing of Israel, insufficient support in Pakistan's long-running battles with India, and anger at U.S. sanctions imposed after Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests. And in the conservative North West Frontier Province bordering on Afghanistan, one heard spirited defenses of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers and a veritable fury at imminent U.S. attacks on them.
There is no bustling business district in Islamabad. Low-slung concrete buildings bracket the tree-lined, dusty boulevards, giving Pakistan's capital the air of an extended small town. Mountains are visible in the distance, and men on bikes, their salwar kameez billowing in the wind, ride through the streets, a wife or sister occasionally perched sidesaddle on the back. Bare flesh is nonexistent in this Muslim country; long sleeves are the standard, and women are veiled or their heads covered. Drinking alcohol and blaspheming the Prophet are against the law, punishable by jail.
The mood here is tense. People are bracing for the coming attacks, and the bloody riots that are sure to come. On the roof of the U.S. Embassy, Marines are sandbagging machine gun emplacements, the national airline has imposed a war tax on travel, and scores of army troops are bivouacked in open fields.
Jamat Ahle-Sunat, a bare-bones concrete mosque on a weed-choked lot, is one of hundreds scattered throughout Islamabad. Like all the city's mosques, Jamat Ahle-Sunat functions also as a madrassa, a religious school where many of Pakistan's youth, the poor in particular, are educated. Across the country, 10,000 madrassas offer a rigorous Islamic education as well as room and board, all free of charge. This is no small attraction in a country where the per capita income is $480 a year and illiteracy is estimated to be around 75 percent.
The madrassa system is integral to the current Afghan-Pakistan-U.S. conflict. In the 1970s, Pakistan's then leader, General Zia-ul-Haq, radicalized the madrassas in an effort to create a cadre of devout Muslims who would strengthen Pakistan's hand against India. His plan succeeded perhaps too well. Taliban means "student": Afghanistan's current Taliban regime flowed directly out of Pakistan's madrassas. And Muslim fundamentalists now make up perhaps 40 percent of Pakistan's armed forces, creating fears that a military coup could leave Pakistan's nuclear weapons in the hands of extremists.
The leader of Jamat Ahle-Sunat is a wizened, aged mullah by the name of Syed Ubad Ulah Shah. As the mosque's 150 students studied Islam, English, and science in nearby classrooms, the mullah sat cross-legged on a prayer rug, surrounded by a half dozen of his senior students, and discussed his conflicts with America and the World Trade Center bombing, which he says is the key to current tensions. "To me, [the bombing] seems the design of the Jewish lobby. The Jewish lobby wants to pit Islam against Christianity. American Jews want to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan, because the Taliban are the true representative of Islam. They did this as an excuse. How do you explain the 5000 Jews that worked at the World Trade Center that called out sick that day?"
Asked how he knew that 5000 Jews had called out sick, the mullah responded, "It is in the newspaper. Not only in one or twoit's in many newspapers; that is why so many believe this. They would not print this in so many papers if it were not true."
"The Jews have great influence on all power centers in America," he continued. "America and the Muslims would get along well, but it's not in the Jews' interest to have a pure Islamic government anywhere in the world. America wants to be the only superpower. Pure Islamic governments do not claim to be superpowers. Only Allah is a superpower. We will fight against infidels and establish Islamic rule across the world. This is the main fear of Jews."