A Muslim Sense of Betrayal

Islamic world's reaction to bombings: The US treats us as second-class citizens

In a surreal clash of cultures, the mullah of an Islamist group bombed by US cruise missiles last week held a press conference in a swanky downtown hotel in Pakistan's capital Saturday, breathing fiery rhetoric against America as pop tunes played in the background.

His analysis: President Clinton blew up his own embassies in East Africa to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky affair.

In the climate here after the US strikes, the extravagance of the claim doesn't matter. The mullah, whose group is on the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations, could have said Mr. Clinton is a spy from Mars - and gotten a hearing.

Overnight, people who two weeks ago didn't know who Osama bin Laden was now think of him as a hero. So strong has been the anti-American feeling in this influential Muslim country that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is forced to join the most radical Islamist groups in condemning the American missile attack.

Beyond the immediate angry reaction on the street, however, is a broader question about the frustration felt in a Muslim world that spans 52 countries, from Morocco to Indonesia - as the US declares war against terrorism. The question has a direct bearing both on the wisdom of any new missile attacks, and on long term US policy, experts here say.

American officials feel that, in time, middle- and upper-class Muslims will decide that Mr. bin Laden is not a hero, and that his desire to overthrow the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and his history of bombing innocent people, will delegitimize him, according to Western diplomats here.

Disillusionment with the West

Yet the question for Muslims may not be about bin Laden the man. To many educated Muslims, the 1990s has been a decade of disillusionment with the West. It begins with the shattering of the Gulf War "grand coalition" that included Saudi Arabia, extends to the plight of Muslims in Bosnia slaughtered for three years in Europe, and is exacerbated by the collapse of the Oslo peace process in the Middle East with the election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A solid conviction has replaced a wait-and-see attitude among many Muslims that when it comes to international law and relations, Islamic countries are second-class citizens that are important only when they are useful to American interests.

Here, for example, that view is compounded by a sense of betrayal that the US used Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then decamped unceremoniously when the war was over, leaving a mess of refugees, guns, and drug traffic. So deeply held is this sentiment that many officials and intellectuals here seriously hope that Washington will reconsider its approach to terrorism, which US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has called "a new kind of war."

As a dapper London-educated stock analyst at the Karachi stock market exchange put it, "The US has been only a fair-weather friend. We will look to other friends if you don't handle your relations with us more sympathetically."

Many Pakistani officials agree privately that Washington had to respond to attacks on its embassies. But the unilateral US action is seen by many as heavy handed and insensitive - and likely to increase the radical Islam that Washington is trying to counter. US attacks will not stop but breed further terrorists, they say.

"I have more of a stake in cooling radical Islam than you do," says a former top Pakistani general. "So I ask, why is the US driving people to desperation? Why is the US embarking on such a dangerous path?

"No civilized person can condone the terrorists. But the friends of America have been put on the defensive by this policy. A great superpower must act with more diplomatic finesse. These actions will strengthen radicals, not stamp them out."

At the same time, an assumption that the US needs to account for or act on every grievance a people are able summon is naive, experienced diplomats say. Washington must avoid the paralyzing mantra of "better policies" as an answer to abject violence. Peoples always find deeper grievances to air. In the case of Pakistan, says a high-ranking diplomat here, "They [Pakistanis] never say anything is their own fault. It is always India or the United States or the West. I have yet to see them confront problems of their own making. But to ignore the environment is equally wrong."

Observers familiar with American thinking say Washington does not believe that airstrikes will cause terrorists to gain strength, and that military action is only one of several options, including diplomacy and economic carrots - though these other tools have not yet been used. They say Washington is bracing for a long war to take apart the terrorists' infrastructure, which is present in dozens of countries.

US intentions

Sending the right signals to the Muslim world will not be easy. task. Pakistani officials give Clinton high marks for comments saying that the strikes were not aimed at Islam. Yet the fundamental issue is one of a perceived American attitude of indifference, and a blind spot in its support of Israel. Solving this issue will take time and effort, and an attempt to bring other states into a concerted antiterror effort.

"You have money and power," says a former Pakistani official. "You have means to deal with these guys. You are the lone superpower, you can afford to be patient."

"It's getting harder and harder for the US to put together a policy that will be supported by its friends," says Graham Fuller, a US specialist on Islam and the Middle East at the Rand Corp. in Washington.

"The perception is that beyond oil and Israel, the US doesn't care about the region. No country in the world feels we are balanced in our Arab-Israeli relations. Netanyahu thumbs his nose, and the US backs down from the entire peace process."

A perceived lack of equity on the Middle East last November caused Saudi Arabia to boycott a multilateral meeting on the peace process. Instead, the Saudis publicly initiated a reconciliation with the Iranians. The United Arab Emirates are drifting from the US-led sanctions on Iraq.

In its specific political expression, terrorist attacks are a bid to play on the sentiments of Muslims worldwide, many of whom are lost in factional squabbles and problems, experts say.

During the Gulf War, dire predictions of a "rise of the street" against the West never materialized - much to the dismay of harder-line Islamists. One of those was Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi Arabian who feels that US troops stationed on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia is a desecration of Islam.

Bin Laden's support of terrorists is a pan-Islamic bid to transcend the factional squabbles of Islamists, and to capture the imagination of Muslims everywhere who feel frustrated. While the governments of Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan were modeled on the Western concept of democracy, for the most part they are run by ruling elites and the military. In bin Laden's view, these states are totally corrupt and can only be purified by a return to Islam. For the disillusioned who want answers, the one institution that they can turn to that is not corrupt is religion.

Going after the wrong targets

Indeed, among many Muslims here, and unlike Saddam Hussein, who is viewed as a power-hungry dictator who cares little for Islam, bin Laden is seen as a true believer. He doesn't need money or power. He is standing up to the corrupting influence of the West and to Washington's perceived unfair support of Israel.

"Something not understood by the West," says a high ranking member of the Pakistani foreign office, "is that we are dealing with people for whom the worst you can do is to kill them. They have nothing to lose, which makes them a dangerous kind of enemy. You killed 29 of them. There are 10,000 more. Is this a successful policy?"

Over the weekend, tensions in Islamabad settled somewhat, though in the northwest frontier area, particularly in the city of Peshawar, which is ringed by Afghan refugee camps, the mood is still sullen and the mood defiant after a day of rioting and protest. Foreign nationals have been asked to leave the local hotel until the atmosphere improves.

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