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World: Anti-U.S. Protests Rocking Islamic Cities

  • Jolyon Naegele

Violent anti-American protests have been reported in several mostly Muslim countries since the U.S. and Britain launched air strikes against Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that the protests raise questions about just how extensive Osama bin Laden's backing is in the Islamic world, among both the people in the streets and their governments.

Prague, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An anti-U.S., pro-Taliban/bin Laden demonstration today by hundreds of Indonesian students in Jakarta launched the third consecutive day of protests across the Islamic world.

The Indonesian protesters, many of them veiled women, chanted "Go to hell, America," "Americans and Jews are the real terrorists," and "Save the world from global terrorism" as they tried to stage a sit-in in front of parliament. Police fired tear gas to disperse the protesters, who live in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, under pressure from Islamic groups, appears to have taken a step back from her outspoken support for the U.S. after the 11 September attacks. After the U.S.-led air strikes on Afghanistan began 7 October, her government issued a statement expressing concern for civilians and urging the attacks be limited.

From Indonesia to the Gaza strip and from Bangladesh to Egypt, Sudan, and Kenya, young people have taken to the streets to denounce the U.S. and praise the Taliban militia and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, such as at a recent protest in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Governments in predominantly Muslim countries have expressed various degrees of cautious support or at least understanding for the air strikes. These governments are insisting the protesters represent a small minority of public opinion. But if the protests spread and become increasingly violent, some less stable governments risk falling.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has said the violent protests in Islamabad, Peshawar, and Quetta represent the views of no more than 15 percent to 20 percent of the population.

"The vast majority is with our decision [to support the U.S.]. There are some extremists who are trying to have this agitation. I am very sure this will be very, very controllable and we will meet the situation as it comes."

Nevertheless, the protests in Pakistan have been especially violent, resulting in at least four deaths and several hundred arrests.

Organizers of the most violent demonstrations, in Peshawar, Hangu, and Quetta along Afghanistan's border, say the protests will continue and peak on 12 October. Some of these protesters are members of the 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The Al-Qaeda terrorist network is urging Muslims, especially young people, around the world to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Bu-Ghaith, speaking in a prerecorded message broadcast yesterday, said it was every Muslim's duty to wage a holy struggle against the U.S.

Muslims in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines have also demonstrated. Malaysia's president has denounced the U.S. air strikes against Afghanistan. Malaysia's main Islamic opposition party, Parti Islam Se Malaysia, gave permission for its 800,000 members to join a jihad, or holy struggle. But the party issued a statement saying a jihad is not just about taking up arms but includes calls for peace and justice.

In Bangladesh, a part of Pakistan until 1971, violent demonstrations erupted across the country amid calls by Islamist groups for a jihad. The secretary-general of Bangladesh's Islamic Unity Front -- mufti Fazlul Huq Amini, a newly elected member of parliament -- told one rally that, "U.S. President George W. Bush has launched an aggression against the Muslim world and has surely started an adventure to disintegrate the United States like that of the Soviet Union."

In Oman, students took to the streets in Muscat shouting anti-Israeli slogans and calling on Arabic and Islamic countries not to extend assistance to U.S. forces.

In Osama bin Laden's homeland, Saudi Arabia, the government has made no comment since the air strikes began.

However, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told "Time" magazine that the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington were intended "to provoke unmeasured responses that bring others into the fray and cause collateral damage, increasing the sense of injustice." Al-Faisal praised the U.S. for what he called its "measured response" and expressed full support for the air strikes. Saudi Arabia, however, has barred the U.S. from using Saudi territory for strikes against Afghanistan.

Violent protests by students in the Gaza strip affiliated with the radical Hamas terrorist group -- opposed to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- included the torching of buildings and resulted in two deaths. The Palestinian Authority responded by closing schools and universities, sealing off the border with Israel and barring foreign journalists from the area. The Palestinian Authority is denying Israeli news reports that it asked Israel for the first time for anti-riot equipment and tear gas. Israeli defense officials favored granting assistance, but political leaders are reported by Israeli news media to have turned down the request.

The 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference opened an emergency session in Qatar today. But the group is unlikely to condemn the air strikes because of perceptions by many member states that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda pose direct threats to their own states.

In Africa, anti-U.S. demonstrations have taken place in Egypt, Sudan, and Kenya. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- while expressing support for the U.S. air strikes -- said last night, "The United States as it fights terrorism, [should] start taking strong measures to solve the Palestinian question, because we believe it has great importance in the efforts to eradicate the roots of terrorism."