Anti-U.S. protesters are difficult to peg

Motives vary widely, even as many call America a friend

War On Terrorism : The World

October 15, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan -- America, meet one of your newest enemies.

His name is Malik Imran, a 26-year-old college student who loves the music of Mariah Carey, idolizes American fashion and likes the fact that in America people are free to drink alcohol.

Yet he longs to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Such are the contradictions of the anti-American protesters who have turned Pakistan upside down with violent demonstrations during the past week. Chanting "Down with America" and "Osama is a hero," Imran and thousands of other Pakistanis and Afghan refugees in Quetta were part of the mobs that destroyed four banks, a United Nations office and a cinema that featured Hollywood films.

But don't get confused, Imran cautions, he and many other protesters love the American people.

"Please don't mix up the people of America with the policies of America," says Imran, a shy man with a quick smile. "They are separate things. I salute the American people with two hands. I respect you. I love you."

It's the American government he and others despise, he says.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, says the protesters represent a minority of the country's population. Most people, Musharraf says, support his cooperation with the United States in tracking down Osama bin Laden, who is suspected in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, in Afghanistan.

But there are some, because of their Islamic faith and family ties to Afghanistan, who are strongly opposed to the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign. They are a vocal minority that threatens to destabilize this politically fragile country.

Musharraf, backed by a heavy military presence in volatile cities such as Quetta, has been able to control this minority. For how long he will be able to do that is not clear.

Yesterday, more protests erupted near Jacobabad in southern Pakistan, where U.S. forces are using an air base for their military campaign. A nationwide strike is planned for today to protest Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's planned visit to Islamabad.

"A large number of people agree with me," Imran says during an interview at his home in the suburbs of Quetta. "Do you know that if we are 12 or 15 percent of the population, we represent more than 20 million people? And could you tell me which of the armies have 20 million fighting force? No country."

The military has injured or killed several protesters across the nation to quell the protests.

"How many people will they shoot?" Imran asks. "If they kill 1,000 people, what will the effect be on Pakistan's government?"

These questions cross Imran's mind on a recent afternoon as he sits in his living room, a cigarette in one hand and a Coke in the other, and explains the anger he feels toward the United States.

"Before the bombing, I did like America," he says. "The people in America enjoy themselves and this life. You can enjoy yourselves anyway you want to. If you want to drink, you can drink. If you want to dance, you can dance. It means you are free. That's why I like America." But then the bombs fell.

"The day the Americans attacked. My viewed changed. Is this the same America who used to talk about human rights and benevolence?" he asks. Although Imran is Pakistani, his ancestors come from Afghanistan and he shares the same language and culture of the Baluch people who live on either side of Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Imran does not fit the profile of many protesters, who are militant Islamic students, often with little education outside their mosques. The son of a well-known pediatrician in Quetta, Imran lives in a large, comfortable house with servants. He jokes that his father earns money and that he and his five brothers and sisters play with his earnings. He is also not very religious. He is a Muslim who drinks whiskey and vodka. He says he thinks the members of militant Islamic parties of his country are "brainwashed," yet he marched along with them in many of the protests.

Imran is studying for a graduate degree in public administration at the University of Baluchistan, where he is general-secretary of the Baluch Student Association, a group that is fighting for more autonomy for the Baluch people of Pakistan.

Despite President Bush's promises that this is not a war against the Afghan people, Imran says he believes that U.S. missiles are being aimed at the civilian population.

"If someone comes and starts killing people on your land, wouldn't your heart be burning?" asks Imran.

Like most protesters here, Imran refuses to believe that bin Laden, the Taliban regime or anyone else in Afghanistan had anything to do with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Instead, he has embraced one of the conspiracy theories circulating in Pakistan. Imran says the American government organized the terrorist attacks so it could justify an attack on Afghanistan, a key country to controlling Asia.

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