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Afghanistan: Muslim Nations Brace For Impact Of Possible U.S. Response

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Both Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia and suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, believed to be behind the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, are calling on all Muslims to wage a jihad, or holy struggle, if the U.S. and its allies launch a military offensive against the country. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch speaks with Islamic experts about the possible impact of such a military campaign on Muslim countries everywhere.

Prague, 26 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the United States contemplates military action against Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, analysts and political leaders express concern that an attack on Afghanistan could spark unrest in the rest of the Muslim world.

Taliban religious clerics, or ulemas, last week called on all Afghans to wage a "jihad," or holy struggle, if the U.S. and its allies attack the country. Earlier this week, bin Laden himself reportedly asked Muslims in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan to fight what he described as the "American crusaders."

In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, the top Islamic authority yesterday called on the Muslims of the world to repel a U.S. attack on Afghanistan. The Council of Ulemas also urged the Indonesian government not to support Washington.

Most governments in Arab and other Muslim countries have condemned the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, which claimed almost 7,000 lives. Even states generally considered in the West as sympathetic to terrorist groups, such as Sudan, or Islamic fundamentalism, such as Saudi Arabia, have expressed their willingness to cooperate in the war on terrorism.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates severed ties with the Taliban, leaving Pakistan as the only country with diplomatic links to Kabul. But even in Islamabad -- which helped the Taliban seize power in the mid-1990s -- support for the hard-line militia is waning, despite violent anti-government protests critical of President Pervez Musharraf's pledge to assist the U.S. in tracking down members of bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization.

How significant is the rift between governments and societies in the predominantly Muslim countries expressing support for the U.S.? Our correspondent posed this question to Rashid Khalidi, who heads the Center for International Studies at Chicago University:

"I think that very much will depend on the nature of the U.S. intervention. Should there be a great number of innocent victims, or should great damage be caused to the infrastructures of this country [Afghanistan] that has been almost destroyed by more than 20 years of war and is already suffering a lot, then there could be some reactions not only in the Arab or Muslim world, but elsewhere as well. On the contrary, if this is not the case, if there are very few civilian casualties and if attacks are limited to selected military targets, then one could expect very limited reactions."

In a commentary published last week (20 September) in the French daily "Le Monde," Arab world expert Gilles Kepel drew a parallel between the Taliban's calls for a "jihad" and calls to solidarity among Muslims made 10 years ago by the Iraqi leadership in the wake of Baghdad's military operation against Kuwait.

Kepel wrote: "Expecting an offensive, [Taliban supreme leader] Mullah [Mohammad] Omar is calling upon the solidarity of all Muslims on Earth -- as did [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein in 1991 -- and is counting on a widespread conflagration. This is where the conflict's destiny will play out."

Khalidi believes that if Saddam's calls to a holy war remained largely unheard by Muslims, bin Laden and the Taliban could stand a better chance:

"Most Arab countries then thought that the occupation of Kuwait [by Iraqi troops] was an unacceptable crime. Even though in some Arab countries part of the population felt sympathetic to Saddam, most people understood that he did not have the right to call for a 'jihad' because he was wrong. Today's situation is different, I believe."

Khalidi goes on:

"It will also depend on the magnitude of this war. If it looks like this war will target not only the network of individuals that has attacked the U.S., if it is launched against entire countries -- like Iraq, for example, or Yemen, or other Arab countries -- then such calls to a 'jihad' -- which, in normal circumstances, have little effect -- could have an impact because then, this war could be understood as a 'crusade' -- as Bush inappropriately said -- launched by Western Christians against Islam."

Cherif Ferjani teaches Arab civilization and Islamic studies at French-based Lyon University and is also a researcher at the Group for Research and Studies on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Affairs (GREMMO).

In an interview with RFE/RL, Ferjani said he believes the 11 September attacks had a tremendous impact on Muslims and Islamic groups. He says such groups now understand to what extremes terrorism and religious radicalism can lead:

"They now understand that if it is proved that Islamic groups are behind what happened [on 11 September], the entire Islamic movement will be targeted. Prior to the [attacks], the Americans were not totally opposed to collaborating with some Islamic groups when they deemed it necessary. Now the U.S. is no longer in a position to keep the same benevolent attitude toward these groups. One should not forget that it is the U.S. that has trained and helped bin Laden and the Taliban. Now it is clear to everyone that, should it be proved that Islamic militants are involved in the attacks, the U.S. would have to give up their previous duplicity and side with the most radical anti-Islamic countries."

Ferjani believes that, whatever military action the U.S. decides to take, Muslim populations are unlikely to fight for the Taliban's cause:

"Calls to the 'jihad' can be efficient only in a situation where people are so desperate that they are ready to go to war and sacrifice their lives, as we have witnessed in the Palestinian territories. But even there, people were frightened by what happened in the United States. This goes, too, for the [radical Islamist group] Hamas, which leaders have softened their stance. Of course, the situation will develop on a country-by-country basis. But I do not think that people will go to war by mere solidarity [with the Taliban or bin Laden]. To drive people to suicide, there ought to be other specific ingredients in each country, in each society."

Pakistan could be one such country. Ferjani believes there is a great potential for unrest in Pakistan:

"The only country where calls to a 'jihad' may have some impact, I think, is Pakistan. But if this happens, it would be mainly because the country is otherwise experiencing problems linked to the fragility of the state, to the presence of many Afghans [on the national territory] and to the role [Islamabad] has played on the Taliban's side. The domestic situation there could generate an implosion. But I do not think that in Saudi Arabia, for example, solidarity with the Taliban would prevail over the existing alliances that generate oil-linked cash flows."

Whatever strategy the U.S. opts for -- selected air strikes or, as one U.S. Army official suggested last week, "sustained land combat operations" -- it should look beyond the purely military aspects.

As French Arab world expert Kepel wrote last week, Washington and its allies "have now to convince the populations concerned that the eradication of the Taliban and their protege will lead to a world of greater justice and solidarity and not to a 'clash of civilizations,' on which the apocalyptic terrorism imputed to bin Laden is based."

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