Several thousand demonstrators took to the streets of the Pakistani city of Peshawar today to condemn President Pervez Musharraf for joining the U.S.-led international coalition against terror. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky watched the rally, spoke to some of the participants, and filed this report.
Peshawar, 28 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, and in the Pakistani city of Peshawar today, special prayers were said for neighboring Afghanistan.
Many people in Peshawar fear that neighboring country will become the target of U.S. retaliation as Washington hunts for terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be in hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban government.
Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, of which Peshawar is the capital, is home to many of the 2 million Afghan refugees who fled the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s.
Even before that, the population of the area was overwhelmingly Pathan -- the tribe that lives on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border and which is the largest of the tribes in Afghanistan.
Emotions are running high in Peshawar because of what they view as the betrayal of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Islam by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. He has pledged his support to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism and has agreed to help track down bin Laden.
Many Muslims believe the coalition is a pretext for the West to wage war against Islam.
There were rallies yesterday throughout Pakistan by people supporting Musharraf's pro-U.S. stance. Today, several thousand people joined a march through Peshawar's streets to oppose Musharraf. They wound their way through the narrow, dusty streets of the city's Khyber bazaar, holding aloft posters of bin Laden, shouting anti-American slogans, and beating, then burning, an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush.
Hundreds of Pakistani police armed with machine guns, batons, tear gas, and riot shields sealed off streets and shadowed the rally, which proceeded peacefully. The protesters listened to speeches by religious leaders, who said bin Laden is innocent and, among other things, blamed the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on the Israeli secret services.
One of those attending today's rally was Fatih Mohamed, representative of a Peshawar-based Muslim group called Tanzeen-I-Islami, or the Organization of Islam. He explains that some people are critical of Musharraf because he met with religious leaders and with students but in the end ignored their advice and -- as he put it -- Musharraf went his "own way":
"In a very sarcastic manner, they [the government] are denigrating the Islamic Ulema and the maderrasahs [theological schools]. That is something very bad."
Fatih believes people are so enraged that if the U.S. does attack Afghanistan, there could be widespread discord in Pakistan and even fighting.
"It will be bloodshed. It will be mutual fighting and a lot of chaos in this country because I, who was educated, may have some fears, but that man who is illiterate, he has just the base of his faith, and he is going to come out with his weapon, and he is going to not make any distinction between the Pakistani soldier and the American soldier."
The Taliban leader in Afghanistan as well as Osama bin Laden and many religious leaders in Pakistan, including those at today's rally, warn that there could be a jihad, or holy struggle, against the U.S. and its allies if there are military strikes against Afghanistan. Fatih, a former major in the Pakistan army, explains:
"Jihad becomes imperative when a Muslim country is attacked by any faith which that country does not have. It is irrespective [of] Jew, Christian -- that is not the point."
Peshawar University student Kudrat Ullah attended today's protests. He says many in Pakistan believe the U.S.-led international coalition is not aimed against terrorism but against Islam.
"We are against terrorism. We don't support any terrorism anywhere, but we are prey to this terrorism everywhere in the world. The Muslims have become prey to terrorism in Kashmir [a predominantly Muslim territory in India] -- they have become victims of the brutalities of Indian barbarism. And in Palestine, we have became prey to Israeli barbarism. And in Chechnya, we have been cut off by the Russian troops. Now we are innocent people, but American policies ... We are not against the Christians or American people but their policies, which are against us, we are against them."
Most of those opposed to Musharraf joining the U.S.-led coalition repeat again and again that they oppose terrorism, which they say is contrary to Islamic beliefs. Many protesters at today's rally, such as civil servant Yunis Amin, insist that America must present proof of bin Laden's responsibility for the attacks -- which claimed more than 5,000 lives -- before he can be turned over:
"We are also very sad for this incident which happened in New York and Washington, and we are not in favor of this. But we are saying first you must bring the proof. Then hang Osama, hang anyone [who is responsible]."
However, judging from the fervency of those attending today's rally, it may be difficult to furnish sufficient evidence to convince many in Pakistan that bin Laden is responsible for the attacks in the United States.