Taliban finds few Muslim friends

Middle East
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The Independent Online

They have been lining up in their condemnation. Mullahs, sheikhs and sayeds, from Beirut to Tehran, are criticising last week's assault on the United States, sending condolences and sympathy and – by their actions – distancing themselves from the atrocity that millions of Arab Muslims watched live on television.

There is genuine outrage, true, but it would be as well to place it in context. Because the Taliban, the shield of Osama bin Laden, has almost as many enemies in the Middle East as it has in America.

For two consecutive days, Sayed Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual guide to the Hizbollah guerrilla movement – the group that reinvented the art of suicide bombing against the Israeli occupation army in Lebanon and which Washington still blames for the kidnapping of Americans in Beirut in the 1980s – has been excoriating those responsible.

"No religion justifies such an action," the Shia Muslim cleric announced in Beirut. "It is not permissible to use innocent and peaceful civilians as a card to change a specific policy." Muslims and Islamists opposed American policy in the region – "which is totally biased in favour of the Zionist enemy" – but they wanted to be friends with the American people, the cleric said.

Sheikh Abdul-Amir Qabalan, the vice-president of the Higher Shia Muslim Council in Lebanon, insisted Islam was "a religion of justice and equality and it condemns any attack on civilians and the innocent".

Now this makes interesting reading. No such condemnations followed the Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 15 civilians, including six children, in a Jerusalem pizzeria in August or the suicide bombing that slaughtered 21 Israeli teenagers in Tel Aviv. Hizbollah's satellite groups were held responsible for the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in which more than 50 Lebanese civilians were killed.

In Iran, whose boy soldiers perfected suicide attacks on the Iraqi army in the 1980-88 war and whose government has always supported Palestinian suicide bombers, President Mohammad Khatami and his conservative opponents condemned totally the New York and Washington bombings. This is not surprising.

For in Tehran the rulers of Afghanistan have been called the "black Taliban" for years, long before the US identified them as Mr bin Laden's protectors. The Iranians, and, by extension, their Hizbollah protégés, have long regarded the Taliban's "Wahabi" Sunni Muslim leaders as obscurantists and potential "terrorists".

At least two million Afghan refugees are living in great poverty in eastern Iran, many of whom would have stayed at home were it not for the Taliban's rule and the mass starvation that the Taliban has done little to alleviate. Iran has now closed its border with Afghanistan to prevent a further exodus of refugees and America has said that it would "consider" inviting Iran to join a coalition against "world terrorism". Iran will most certainly decline.

The Saudis, of course, can scarcely do anything but join in the chorus of condemnation. They helped to create the Taliban, to legitimise its presence in Afghanistan and to fund and arm the so-called students who destroyed most of the rival mujahedin groups who had been pillaging Kabul and other great Afghan cities in the years that followed the Soviet military withdrawal. Mr bin Laden is himself a Saudi – though one officially deprived of his citizenship – and, as is becoming clearer, some of the hijackers were Saudi citizens.

In Egypt, Sunni Muslim clerics added their own condemnation, although President Mubarak has been one of the few Middle Eastern leaders to warn of the consequences of indiscriminate American retaliation. He it was who warned just two short weeks ago that, unless a peace was restored, he feared there would be "an explosion outside the region".

Back in Lebanon, the Hizbollah itself issued a crafty statement yesterday, regretting the loss of innocent lives in America but warning Washington not to take advantage of the atrocities "to practise all sorts of aggression and terrorism under the pretext of fighting aggression and terrorism".

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