RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN—For 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 message—that the current campaign is not a war on Islam—is 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.
These Christians also want the war to stop, primarily because they fear a backlash against their community, seen by some Muslims as “Western” and therefore suspect. Father Bhatti fervently disputes that Catholicism was brought in from outside, insisting that Saint Thomas visited Taxila, a nearby town, in the first century. He does admit, however, that the Christian movement gathered steam in the 19th century, when Hindu “untouchables” converted as a means of escaping India’s brutal caste system.
The Christians here say the unthinkable, putting voice to thoughts heard few other places in Pakistan. “Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization,” says Nasir Inayat, a 24-year-old parishioner at Our Holy Father. “Those [Pakistanis] who go to fight with the Taliban, this is not jihad that they are on.”
He quickly adds, “But they have their holy book and we have to respect this.” When he says, “have to respect this,” he means it literally. Christians here walk a fine line; a Christian is currently on death row for blaspheming the prophet Muhammad. At the Catholic school where Nasir studied, Islam is a subject mandated by law, just as it is in every school in the country, public or private.
As for buying guns for self-defense, Nasir says this has been rejected by the community members in favor of prayer. “Jesus Christ is our brother; God gave his only son for us. As Christians, we have to shed our own blood, not shed the blood of others. The Bible says, ‘There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.’ The Bible is asking me to lay down my life, not to take the lives of others.”
Like the Christians, many among this nation’s Shia minority, who may number as many as 30 million, are fearful of sectarian violence, but some are fighting back. There are numerous Shia mosques in Rawalpindi, but the Shias say they don’t want to make waves; at each door, a request for an interview is met with “no comment.”
At Ali Masjid, a ramshackle mosque located down a Rawalpindi alleyway, admission is refused once again to a foreigner, but Pakistani hospitality takes over among the half dozen guards out front. They invite a journalist and an interpreter into an open-walled guard post located on the corner. It is a hut, really, with a low steel barrier along each side and a clear line of fire down both approaches to the mosque.
Inside there are some cushions on the floor, a small sink, a gas burner, and an automatic rifle. Three hundred Shias have been killed so far this year in sectarian violence, and two guards watch the street warily as the other men take turns cleaning vegetables. One steps outside to choose dinner from among the chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys that roam up and down the street.
One of the guards launches into a history of Shiism as the others listen, occasionally offering details or clarifications. It is a long, extraordinarily complex story of betrayal and the power struggles that took place after the death of the prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago. The guard explains that of the four caliphs, it was Ali who was clearly chosen by Muhammad as his successor. Yet the other three caliphs ruled first, leaving Ali to wait 15 years before assuming his rightful position. Later, in what is probably the seminal event in Shia history, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain was betrayed, murdered, and decapitated at Karbala, in what is now Iran.
Each year the Shias here and around the world mark this event with self-flagellation. “We take very sharp knives,” the guard explains, “and tie them to chains, and we beat ourselves with them until we are badly cut and bleeding. If I stand on the street and cry, someone will stop to ask why. If I beat myself, more people gather around. If I perform zangeer-zani [beating oneself with knives], then a lot of people will gather around and ask why. I want people to ask me why, to take notice, and I will tell them of the death and betrayal of Imam Hussain.” One Shia shows off a scar the size of a small walnut over one of his vertebrae. “I felt no pain at all,” he says proudly.
The Sunnis are outraged by this behavior, saying the Koran forbids self-mutilation. And they disagree over Muhammad’s chosen successor, and are furious that the Shias disparage the first three caliphs. Also, there is very serious disagreement over whether the Koran as it exists is a finished document.
To outsiders, some of this may seem like a squabble over ancient events. But listen to the passion with which the guard tells his tale, and look past his shoulder to the man with the rifle, and one realizes that this tale is a vital part of the teller’s life. Many of the Shias’ holiest sites are in Iran and Iraq; Iran in particular has been very nearly at war with Afghanistan’s Taliban. And the Taliban leaders, with characteristic intolerance, have declared that “the Shias are not Muslims” and massacred approximately 5000 Shias inside their borders.
At the Shia study center near Tariq-e-Jaafia, Rashid Hussain, a Shia elder, or scholar, says that things were better before 1947, the year Pakistan was partitioned from India. “Before partition, we were poor, and Shia and Sunni all got along,” he says. “Then the money came, and we all built our religious schools, and each school began to criticize the other.” As for the Taliban, he says, “The Shia hate the Taliban, because they are creating a separate religion. They are teaching people how to hate.”
Hussain singles out the Taliban leader Mullah Omar for scorn. “He is saying, ‘I am the caliph, I am appointed by Allah.’ Nobody has ever done that before. He is claiming power that is not his.” As for the U.S. military action, he says the Afghan civilians should be spared, but argues, “It has been proven that Osama and the Taliban are behind the September 11 attacks. We could never go on jihad under the circumstances.”
Khaled Ahmed is one of Pakistan’s most prominent journalists, and he writes frequently about the country’s religious factions. He also makes regular payoffs to the extremists to avoid assassination. Asked about Sunni extremists like Abu-Sufian, Ahmed explains that the very concept of jihad is a foreign import. “The state brought this in from Afghanistan, from the Arab states in the 1980s. The government needed to rile up the people to go fight against the Soviets, and it worked. Now it’s a part of our culture,” he says. And, he explains, jihad won’t go easily back into the box from which it came.