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RAWALPINDI, PAKISTANFor Abu-Sufian, the equation is simple. "It is our responsibility to help our Muslim brothers fighting against the Kafirs, the Jews, the Sikhs, the Christians," he says. Right now, Abu-Sufian helps the Muslim cause by staffing a tent pitched in a lot on Murree Road, a crowded, filthy thoroughfare lined with car-repair and dress shops and roti stands. In front of the tent is a table full of Islamic literature and a box where passersby can make a donation to help the people of Afghanistan. There are thousands of tents like this on street corners all over Pakistan, collecting blood, money, or food for Afghan civilians and the ruling Taliban.
Abu hopes his days of sitting in this tent will soon end. Even to many Pakistanis Abu is an extremist, but like millions of young men here, he dreams of going to fight. "We have a duty to go on jihad. At this time, with the air attacks, there is nothing I can do there, but once [the American] ground attacks start, I will go. A huge number of men will go with me. We will play our role," he says.
For Abu and others, the U.S. war is little more than a thinly disguised attack on Islam itself. "The real motive [of the U.S. attack] is to root out an Islamic state dedicated to Islamic principles and injunctions," he declares. "The Taliban established an Islamic government based on the golden Islamic principles. Ours is a religion of peace and tranquillity," he says, as a two-foot-high calendar sporting a picture of an anti-aircraft gun flutters in the breeze nearby.
As evidence of U.S religious bias, Abu points to East Timor. "The U.S. solved that conflict; the U.S. protects the interest of Christians," he says. "But if the interests of the Muslim world are at risk, they don't care. If the Taliban were Christians, they'd be supported."
Abu argues at length and then pauses for a long moment, as if to let the gravity of the moment sink in. "What you need to understand," he says, "is that we Muslims want to die, but you others want to live. . . . If a Muslim dies in jihad, there will be eternal success for him in heaven." To men like Abu, the Afghan conflict is actually an opportunity, a chance to become a shaheed, or martyr, in defense of Islam. According to the Koran, a shaheed and his family are guaranteed direct passage to heaven, where the fallen warrior will sit closest to Muhammad.
The opportunity to sit near Muhammad for eternity fills Pakistan's Muslim men with joy and excitement. (A woman cannot be a shaheed.) Islam is not lived here as a casual part of everyday life. This is not the West, where many Christians go to church only on Christmas and Easter, and secular Jews observe the High Holy Days as a cultural ritual. All over Pakistan, one sees Muslims kneeling by the side of the road, complying with the edict to pray five times a day. For tens of millions of Pakistanis, the Koran is not a historical link to spirituality, but rather the literal word of Allah and a complete manual for living, a guide that instructs Muslims in everything from stepping into one's home to relations with one's wife.
Like Abu, millions of other members of this country's Sunni Muslim majority see the war in purely religious terms. The U.S. government's messagethat the current campaign is not a war on Islamis clearly losing out to Islamic solidarity. None of the dozens of Muslims interviewed in the last week had heard about Osama bin Laden's fatwa to kill Americans, or about the attack on the USS Cole, or the embassy bombings in which Bin Laden has been implicated. All insisted that no evidence of Bin Laden's involvement in the WTC attacks has been shown. And frankly, many said, they don't much care about the details of America's justification. The Koran spells out an obligation to come to the aid of fellow Muslims; this is the primary motivation for many here, the working classes in particular.
Approximately 15,000 Pakistanis are believed to have entered Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. If interviews conducted this past week are any indication, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions more, are being held back by religious and political leaders. Yet this is a jihad that many among this country's religious minorities are sitting out.
A mile or so from where Abu is collecting money for Afghanistan, the 500 inhabitants of what is referred to as "the Christian colony" are preparing for a possible attack on their homes. So far the preparations include locked doors and talk of gathering stones and pots of boiling water on their rooftops. On October 28, gunmen burst into a crowded church in Bahawalpur and killed 18 Christian worshipers. Among Pakistan's Muslims it immediately became an article of faith that the terrorists were agents from India's secret service, sent to tarnish Pakistan's reputation at a critical juncture.
Many of this country's 2 million Christians doubt this, just as they doubt that Osama bin Laden is a true representative of Islam. "For me, Osama is using religion to protect himself. It is because of him that a lot of civilians are dying in Afghanistan," says Father Munawar Bhatti, of Our Holy Father Catholic Church, situated in the middle of the colony. The community is small, a few dozen houses crowded along narrow dirt streets. Some houses contain as many as 30 people, and in any direction, the locals can point out the exact corner where the Christian dwellings stop and the Muslim houses begin.