Imran Khan: We must address the root causes of this terror

The terrorist attacks have nothing to do with religious faith and everything to do with genuine injustices. Until the US addresses the root causes and its own double standards, the bombings will increase
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The Independent Online

Some history is in order. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the US used Islam to counter the occupation. It sponsored an international jihad in the Muslim world and encouraged volunteers from Muslim countries to join in it. Thousands, including Osama bin Laden, flocked to Pakistan, where US-funded training camps were set up under CIA supervision. These plucky mujahedin were glorified in the West. But once the Soviets were defeated, both Afghanistan and the mujahedin were abandoned by the US. Afghanistan descended into chaos, from which the Taliban emerged.

Pakistan paid a heavy price, being left with sectarian militant groups trained in terrorism and four million Afghan refugees. We were swamped with drugs and Kalashnikovs. Meanwhile, those Muslims glorified as heroes for dislodging the Soviets now turned their attention to other countries where Muslims were being oppressed. As this brought them up against the US, they went from being heroic jihadis to "Islamic terrorists". The culmination of this was 9/11.

But rather than trying to understand why 9/11 had happened, Bush and his colleagues took refuge in such inane expressions as "they hate our freedom, our way of life, our democracy" and, even more ridiculously, "they love killing". The main stakeholders used 9/11 to pursue their own agendas for which it was convenient to conflate Islam and terrorism. Hence wherever Muslims were involved in a freedom struggle, they would become "Islamic terrorists". This is no mere semantic point. Ariel Sharon used the excuse of terrorism to use his formidable military might against the civilian Palestinian population. Similarly Russia would use the magic word al-Qa'ida to squash all accusations of genocide and human rights abuse in Chechnya. But the chief grievances were political, not religious.

Then India claimed that "Islamic terrorists" were operating in Kashmir when that freedom struggle dated back almost 150 years. George Bush would use the term to attack Afghanistan weeks after 9/11, making war a first option rather than a last resort. And later he would use the same pretext to invade Iraq.

Yet the perception in the West remained that somehow Islam was connected to militarism and terrorism, that all Muslims believe that all suicide bombers go straight to heaven. No one mentioned that before 9/11 70 per cent of suicide bombings in the world were committed by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, who were Hindus. No one blames Hinduism, nor do they blame Shintoism for the Japanese Kamikaze pilots. Where religion is particularly strong, political martyrdom gets cloaked in religious terminology.

Thus Islam was put on the defensive. Heads of all Muslim countries went hoarse giving statements that suicide bombings were not allowed in Islam. General Musharraf went further, making Pakistan a frontline state against Islamic extremism and terrorism. He invented the term "enlightened moderation" in the hope of encouraging Muslims to avoid militancy. Now there is deafening clamour for him to close madrassas (religious schools) given that it has emerged that three of the four 7/7 bombers had visited one. But there are almost a million madrassa students in Pakistan. Are they all terrorists? Of course not. And why did the madrassas not produce any militants before the Afghan jihad when they have existed in the subcontinent for centuries?

The state school structure in Pakistan is in a mess. Madrassas are the only means through which poor families can educate their children. In my constituency in Mianwali, 70 per cent of the state schools are closed, mainly because there are no teachers. What are the people supposed to do there if they do not send their children to the charity-run religious schools? Certainly some madrassas do preach hate against other sects, and they should have been closed a long time ago, And there needs to be modernisation of the syllabus of Pakistan's entire education system, madrassas included. Unfortunately, General Musharraf's hands are tied. He is seen as a stooge of the anti-Islamic Americans. He lacks the moral authority to reform the madrassas or take on the sectarian militants. Sadly, he is more likely to exacerbate both militancy in our society and anti-American feelings.

In Muslim countries where the government is perceived to be a US puppet, there is a rise in both anti-Americanism and terrorism (eg Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Afghanistan). Suicide bombings in Pakistan started only after the Iraq invasion when both the Prime Minster and President were targeted. And where the government is thought to derive its power from its own people (and not from the US), like Iran and Malaysia, there is no terrorism. Mahatir Mohammad was able to clamp down on extremism in Malaysia with great success because he had popular backing.

The war on terror will never be won as long as we do not address the root causes - as long, for example, as the leadership in the US and UK denies that the horrific London bombing had anything at all to do with Iraq. The great danger is that sooner or later some suicide attacker will get hold of chemical or biological weapons and cause far greater damage in the US or UK than we have seen to date. When episodes such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are broadcast widely, the Muslim perception grows that it is not a war against terror but a war against Islam. The risk is then that the terrorists become "defenders of the faith". For that cause they will have no shortage of recruits.

By not addressing the issues that give a perception in the world of unjust US policies (like Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir) and by using the pretext of democracy to invade Iraq, while backing a military dictator in Pakistan or a tyrant in Uzbekistan, the US double standards cause further Muslim alienation. The US and Israel are leaning on Mahmoud Abbas to curb Palestinian militancy, but this will achieve nothing unless the root cause is addressed. Similarly, they can lean on Musharraf as much as they like to close the madrassas which preach militancy and stop infiltration of insurgents in Afghanistan, but he will be equally ineffective. In short, the Americans are impotent in this war on terror.

Imran Khan is Pakistan's former cricket captain, an MP and chairman of the country's Movement for Justice

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