Brightest learn from terror

Debate: Pakistani university students' discussions show how deeply animosity toward the United States is felt in the region.

War On Terrorism

The World

October 14, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - On the streets of Pakistan, the argument goes largely unchallenged: The U.S. government brought terrorist attacks on itself by unfair policies in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world. And some, shouting at the top of their lungs, insist that Osama bin Laden is a hero.

But Islamabad's Quaid-I-Azam University, the Harvard of Pakistan, is not the local bazaar, and students must defend their positions. Professor Rifaat Hussain likes to ask his students to examine their assumptions.

"How many of you in this room are going to embrace Osama bin Laden as your hero?" asked Hussain.

Sitting beneath spinning ceiling fans, most students looked around the room and kept their hands in their laps. Shahzad Akhtar Sidiqui spoke out.

"He's fighting for Islam," said Sidiqui, a 24-year-old defense and strategic studies major from Punjab.

"How much do you know about his personal biography?" Hussain responded, asserting that bin Laden had worked with the CIA in the 1980s. Had Sidiqui read books on bin Laden? No, the student acknowledged, he had not.

Ignorance of the past helps bin Laden sustain his vaunted status here. There are books in the Urdu language on bin Laden that never mention his association with the American government when he helped fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In addition, many people seem unaware that well before Sept. 11, bin Laden had called for the killing of American civilians.

Facts ignored, beliefs held

Hussain, who often provides commentary from Pakistan for CNN and the British Broadcasting Corp., said some prefer to ignore certain facts because they admire bin Laden's tough stance against the United States and want to view him as a hero.

"Some of them are living through Osama vicariously," said Hussain, 48, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Denver and served as minister of information in Pakistan's embassy in Washington from 1994 to 1997.

"People want to be cognitively consistent. They always want to ignore information that is threatening to their previously held beliefs."

Other students have a more critical view of bin Laden. As Sidiqui raised his hand in support of the man Washington calls its top suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, Andlib Khan shook her head.

Khan, a 20-year-old who has been admitted into an international relations program at Oklahoma State University, isn't certain that bin Laden was behind the attacks but supports airstrikes against him.

"Killing thousands of innocent people in the world is not something that a hero can do," Khan said later, adding that bin Laden's fortune could be put to better use. "He could do a lot for Islam by using peaceful means."

When another student asserted that American policy in the Middle East had brought on the attacks, Hussain pressed him.

"Aren't you blaming the victim here?" asked Hussain, who is chairman of the university's Department of Defense and Strategic Studies. If one sympathizes with the possible motives of those willing to massacre thousands of civilians, "what's the difference between you and them?"

Thoughtful debate on the meaning and implications of the attacks on the United States has been in short supply in Pakistan, America's front-line ally in the war against terrorism. The international media have focused much of their attention on ritualized street demonstrations where angry mobs shout the same anti-American slogans to protest the U.S. airstrikes.

Hussain's weekly seminar, "Contemporary Strategic Issues," provided a rare forum to dig beneath the surface of the assumptions and explore some of the contradictions and divisions in opinion here.

Hussain helps produce leaders: Some of these students will go on to work in positions of influence as defense correspondents, university professors and officials in the Pakistani government. One day, some could be running the country.

The 25 students came from all four of Pakistan's provinces and included 10 women, a few soldiers and a student who had fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

During the 1 1/2 -hour class, Hussain pushed and prodded his students in a wide discussion.

What were the driving forces behind the Sept. 11 attack? he asked. How do you define terrorism? Can nations - even enemies such as India and Pakistan - share intelligence to stop it?

Perhaps in tune with the times, many of the students' answers seemed pessimistic. Aly Zaman, a 24-year-old from Lahore, said swapping intelligence with India was impossible, given the bitter disagreements in the disputed region of Indian-administered Kashmir.

"That can harm your own security interests," said Zaman, dismissing the idea of cooperation in an area over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars. "In one case, we are supporting the Kashmiris. In the other case, we are working with the Indians."

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