PESHAWAR – It’s Saturday morning in Peshawar on the Pakistan-Afghan border and Maulana Fazlur Rahman is very angry. With his long white beard, orange-and-white turban and ultra-chic silk gold and brown robe over white shalwar kameez (tunic), the rotund leader of one of three factions of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) cuts a dashing and imposing figure.
Addressing a rally of at least 7,000 screaming Deobandi (school of thought) and pro-Taliban supporters, Rahman puts on an absolutely over-the-top performance. He lashes out at the US – “the biggest terrorist state of the world.” He threatens to wage a jihad against America if Afghanistan is attacked. He claims that the US Central Intelligence Agency held the Israeli Mossad responsible for Black September – September 11, the attacks on the US. He wonders “who informed five cameramen to be ready to cover the expected attacks in New York and Washington.” He says an attack on Afghanistan would be good for Muslims to take revenge of the “atrocities committed by US-sponsored Jews on innocent Palestinians.”
Rahman also warned General President (or vice-versa) Pervez Musharraf that if he allowed US troops to use Pakistani soil or airspace against Afghanistan, JUI militants would destroy American planes and kill every American in Pakistan. He also advised former Afghan king Zahir Shah to bring a coffin with him if he decided to rule Afghanistan again.
Maybe the whole thing was a bit too much. A few hours later, the Musharraf government delivers its response: Fazlur Rahman is to be put under house arrest at his abode in Dera Ismail Khan, in the tribal areas, to become the first prominent pro-Taliban supporter to be detained in the country. He had been due to address a rally in the central city of Multan in Punjab province on Sunday. Rahman was reported to have been released on Monday. And on Sunday night, the US, along with British support, finally launched retaliatory air attacks against Kabul and Kandahar.
It’s Sunday morning in Peshawar and there’s a lot of action at the Dar-ul-Uloom Sarhad madrassa – the largest religious school of its kind in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and one of the largest in Pakistan. Most of the Taliban leaders studied here. Because of the qualifications and experience of its Deobandi teachers, this madrassa is considered to be even more important than Samiul Haq’s one in Akhora Khattak, which also educated many Taliban leaders. Samiul Haq, not as adept at fiery rhetoric as Rahman, is the leader of another faction of the JIU. Both the JUI and the Taliban are dominated by Pashtuns, an ethnic group that straddles the Pakistani-Afghan border.
Everyone knows that since midnight Rahman has been under house arrest. There’s a crucial ceremony going on, performed only once a year – the Khatm-I-Bukhari Sharif, readings of the Holy Koran capable of “directing one’s thoughts.” At the end of the ceremony, at least 40 students will receive their diplomas and officially become ulemas – doctors of Islamic law.
But on the fringes, important clerics have only one question: what does Islam say in the case where there is an attack on a Muslim country by a non-Muslim power? One of the important clerics at the madrassa is none other than Rahman’s brother, Maulana Atta-ur-Rahman. Now he has only a few hours to organize a rally against the Musharraf government in protest against his brother’s arrest. In his car, on the way to another meeting, Asia Times Online gets an exclusive insight into his impressions on Islamabad’s crackdown on religious parties.
Maulana Atta agrees that the crackdown was expected – and that it will be countered with “dozens of demonstrations all over the NWFP and in Peshawar.” He emphasizes that “we are friends of the Taliban. If the Pakistani government takes any steps against the Taliban, we will resist. We can do anything for them, even sacrifice our lives.” In answer to the query, is there going to be a jihad?, Maulana Atta answers, “Yes, but against America only.” He stresses that “politics is part of the jihad.” For him, the “majority of the NWFP and the whole of Pakistan is against Musharraf’s policies: in the event of an attack on Afghanistan, all Pakistanis will resist Musharraf also.”
In his opinion, “the rulers of all Islamic countries are under pressure from America, acting as slaves for any kind of reason. But the common people totally disagree with these rulers.” Regarding what were then the imminent US attacks, he said that should they occur, “the world will see what we will do.” In other words, a jihad against America appears inevitable.
Back at the madrassa, Khalid Banori – the principal, and also provincial vice-president of the JUI – delivers a passionate plea for justice “in favor of America, and the whole world community.” He simply cannot understand why America does not even try to engage itself in a diplomatic solution for the Osama bin Laden-Taliban crisis. War on Afghanistan, warns Banori, as declared by America, is “unjust and unlawful.”
A few hours later, after many a fiery speech inside the Madani mosque criticizing the Musharraf government and urging Muslims to fulfill their obligation and wage a jihad once America attacks Afghanistan, the rally finally paralyzes one of Peshawar’s traditional bazaars. There seem to be as many foreign TV crews as participants. There are the inevitable bin Laden posters, denouncements of Musharraf, cries of jihad. These images of less than a thousand screaming diehards are now replaying non-stop all over the world. The impression is that these people are about to topple the government. Could they? Not really.
The militant wings of Pakistan’s religious parties are, at least for the moment, eerily silent. For many moderate commentators, everything about them is nothing but a storm in a teacup. But their silence could mean the lull before the storm. The army in the past has seemed reluctant to face them head-on, but now apparently the gloves are off. And now is the moment of truth: Sunday night’s American attacks are supposed to be met with a jihad. Interviews with Afghan immigrants or refugees in the tribal areas, and with the local NWFP Pashtun population, reveal that a jihad is the only solution. Some echo the JUI call that if the Pakistani government helps the Americans, the jihad will be directed against it as well.
There have been widespread reports for days in the tribal areas of thousands being mobilized and armed to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, in what certainly will develop into a bloody guerrilla warfare. Hardcore religious militants number several thousand. They know how to deal with light and heavy weapons, and explosives. Their suicide squads are supposed to be extremely dangerous. There is also a substantial faction of religious militants inside the Pakistani army which could cause havoc with Musharraf’s plan of silencing the religious parties.
So far the pro-Taliban position of the different factions of the JUI has failed to galvanize moderate Pakistani public opinion. But all bets are off now with the first attacks already having taken place, and depending on the scale and ferocity of further attacks on the Taliban, and above all, Pashtun Afghanistan.