Taking to the streets

Protests in the capital of Islamabad are child's play, but it's markedly more violent near the Afghanistan border.

Published October 8, 2001 7:20PM (EDT)

The boys and young men protesting against the attacks on Afghanistan in Islamabad this morning had Muslim freedom-fighter style down pat. They brandished sticks or bamboo poles, and wrapped turbans and scarves around their heads, leaving only their eyes visible.

It was a threatening display that looked good on television but did little to intimidate the hundreds of riot police armed with machine guns, tear gas and water cannons. Security in the capital was tight and the violence that marked the day in Quetta and Peshawar was absent. No shopping malls or cinemas were burned in Islamabad today. There was anger on display, to be sure, but the demonstrators were also plainly enjoying themselves.

Like any schoolchildren let out of the classroom for the day, these Pakistani madrassah students were in a bouyant mood. The presence of TV cameras and the righteousness of their cause only added to the bravado.

"America wants to kill Islam then every Muslim will go with Islam. We will attack them again and again," said a young man. When I asked his name he replied: "I am Muslim, he is Muslim, we are all Muslim." All his friends laughed at this evasion. When pressed he decided to be called Abdullah, Arabic for "slave of God."

Achmad, a 17-year-old medical student, said: "Osama bin Laden isn't guilty -- he's our hero. He is the Muslim leader. He wants to make a United States of Islamia. What is America doing for the last 50 years in Kashmir and Palestine?" he asked. "Is this not terrorism?"

Around 1,500 demonstrators had gathered on a parched lawn outside the American Center in the heart of Islamabad's business district. They sang low, heartfelt prayers praising the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, waved flags and held placards saying "Taliban we are with u." In the background, brown concrete skyscrapers housing insurance companies and computer consultants shimmered in the heat.

Mullahs from four local mosques screamed at the crowd through loudspeakers, and the crowd raised their fists and shouted back: "Taliban zinderbad!" -- long live the Taliban -- and "Musharraf, shame, shame!"

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has appalled the Islamic hard-liners for allowing Pakistani airspace to be used for the attacks on Afghanistan. In a little reported move he also sidelined two senior generals considered the most radical Islamicists in his cabinet.

Most of the young men milling around were totally against the American attacks. Toufel Shizard, who is studying for a degree in economics as well as Islamic studies, said: "We the people of Pakistan are against the attacks. Killing thousands of people for one man is not fair. There must be a political solution."

Iftikhar Saeed and Azhar Majid, two middle-aged businessmen wearing Western clothes and carrying mobiles, had left their shipping company's office and were watching the demonstration from the sidelines. They were not sympathetic to the protesters' cause.

"I have absolutely no doubt that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban were involved in the attacks in New York," said Saeed. "It's really unfortunate we have had to go to these lengths. I wish the Taliban had listened to reason. The best thing that can happen now is to reconstruct Afghanistan after the war because the poor Afghans are really suffering."

"Pakistan has always been a moderate Islamic nation," he said. "But these madrassah students have one-track minds."

Majid wasn't too concerned about the protests in front of his office: "This is a rather boring demonstration, isn't it? There are just a couple of thousand people here today. This is a small demonstration for Pakistan. We think a demonstration is big when 50,000 people attend."

"But it is creating unnecessary tension. People in the offices don't like to be disturbed."

He echoed concerns made by Musharraf during a morning press conference that the world will somehow allow the crisis in the region to reflect badly on Pakistan. Musharraf told reporters that business had stumbled as international companies had refused to continue with business orders from Pakistan because of the crisis. Majid confirmed Musharraf's report: "Our company has recalled orders, and some shipments to the U.S. have been canceled. Why? For 10 years we had a war with Russia going on next door."

Majid hoped the new resolve to fight terrorism would lead to a reduction in the sectarian violence that has wracked Pakistani society in recent years: "We have so much terrorism here in Pakistan it makes New York look like nothing. Every day here people are killed in mosques or on the streets."

Despite the fiery rhetoric and calls for jihad, the demonstration passed off peacefully and the madrassah students dispersed quietly. This was in marked contrast to the southern town of Quetta. This rough, tough border town in the southern desert sees regular bomb and missile attacks from disgruntled tribesmen who are waging a low-level war with the government over valuable gas deposits discovered under their territory.

In Quetta Monday, there are reports of snipers firing on police from rooftops and a man, believed to be a protester, shot dead. Banks, shops and cinemas were smashed and torched. Other businesses were looted. Protesters entered the UNICEF compound where initial reports suggest they set five cars alight and damaged the inside of the building. The United Nations had told staff to stay at home.

Later in the day another protest took place in Islamabad, and again the authorities took no chances. In addition to hundreds of riot police, armored cars and a water cannon, there was a group of paramilitaries wearing black T-shirts with "The Anti-Terrorist" emblazoned across the back. Nervous shopkeepers pulled down their shutters.

While the main group of protesters listened to their mullahs, waved flags and chanted "Allah Akhbar" -- God is great -- a group of enterprising boys had made a crude effigy of George Bush. After getting a responsible older person to fetch some paraffin, they set light to their model and beat him with sticks. A 12-year-old aimed his toy machine gun into the fire for the photographers who had gathered around like moths.

The flames, the shouting, the attention of the TV teams, was almost too much for the boys. Laughing and shouting they leapt over the flaming Dubya until an elder shooed them away.

As the sun touched the horizon, the muezzin called the faithful to prayer and the demonstrators drifted off to the mosque, leaving just a few charred stains on the tarmac. It's a thin line between a boisterous afternoon on the streets and a riot that shuts a whole city.

By Sean Kenny

Sean Kenny is a British freelance writer.

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