Quake called divine payback

God gets revenge for Pakistani modernization, say Islamic hard-liners

October 23, 2005|By PAUL WATSON

GARHI HABIBULLAH, Pakistan -- The black wires running through the ruins in this mountain town struck a local Muslim cleric as a message from God.

The wires had delivered cable television to about 300 homes and businesses in the town, which was devastated by the Oct. 8 earthquake. Imam Shafqat ur-Rehman is convinced that the natural disaster was God's punishment for people viewing too much cable smut.

"Cable TV is a source of vulgarity and obscenity," said the imam, who heads a local madrasa, or Islamic school. "There are various programs on cable that a true Muslim just cannot watch. I do not know the exact names because I haven't viewed them myself," he added. "I have no interest in such things. But my friends tell me they have seen them at roadside hotels and such. They show men and women hugging each other. They also kiss one another. And there are nude pictures."

For four years, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has tried to lead this Muslim majority country of 162 million people away from religious extremism and down a path of what he calls "enlightened moderation."

His success is crucial to winning the battle of ideas at the heart of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. But the magnitude-7.6 quake dealt a blow to his efforts by giving renewed strength to extremists.

In parts of the quake zone, survivors say, Islamic militants, many of them veterans of the rebellion in the India-controlled portion of Kashmir, were among the first people to rescue victims trapped in rubble. It happened in this town, Rehman said, because Pakistani soldiers arrived only later.

A bloc of hard-line Islamic parties form the opposition in the national parliament and govern the seriously damaged North-West Frontier Province, which includes this town. They have argued for years that the president is going too far in tying this nation to the West. After the quake, many people lost all doubt that Musharraf's approach is wrong.

But like the rest of Pakistan, Garhi Habibullah is divided over whether the quake, which killed nearly 80,000, was an act of divine retribution. Ihsan Nazeem, 17, doubted God was against all TV.

"TV sets, whether they're used by poor or rich people, provide information," said Naseem, who survived the collapse of a boys' public high school. "It depends how you use it."

This remote town, about 100 miles north of Islamabad, the capital, got cable seven months ago. Hundreds of subscribers signed up, despite an anti-cable campaign by the imam.

Cable opponents were most upset about the English-language programs beamed in by satellite to the distributor. The imam singled out HBO, which broadcast Hollywood movies and TV shows such as Sex in the City.

Mohammed Ikhlaq, 21, whose two sisters and a sister-in-law were seriously injured when his house collapsed in the quake, said he and everyone else on his street had cable. He agreed with the imam that they had suffered for their mistake. "We are Muslims, and we are supposed to follow our Islamic teachers, which we had abandoned," Ikhlaq said.

Rehman, a young man with a gaunt face and a long black beard, sees God's selective hand in the pattern of the devastation. Houses that had cable TV connections were flattened, while others weren't, he claimed.

The imam's Arabia Islamia madrasa doesn't have TV sets. Photographing the human form is an insult to God and therefore not condoned by Islam, he said.

But near the madrasa, the local cable company ran its wires past a wall that collapsed in the quake while the school escaped damage. None of its 150 students was harmed whereas several hundred students in the town's several government schools were crushed to death.

"President Musharraf should learn a lesson from the earthquake," Rehman said. "Our religious seminaries remained safe while regular schools and colleges were badly hit."

Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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