Bin Laden and Pakistan
The execution of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. military personnel in a raid on the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, which includes the Pakistan Military Academy, as well as vacation and retirement homes for Pakistani military officers, calls forth a wide range of reflections. For me, some of these thoughts are personal, and embody experiences in my own life.
Some, however, are commonsensical. It seems to have gone unnoticed that Abbottabad, aside from its martial features, and its proximity (less than 120 km in distance) to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, as well as the country's military headquarters in Rawalpindi, is also fewer than 100 km from the "line of control" partitioning Kashmir. U.S.-led forces had concentrated their search for Bin Laden on the other side of Pakistan's narrow northern tip, in the border areas with Afghanistan. But the fortress built for the terrorist chief had better access to Kashmir, which has, longer than Afghanistan, been the target of Pakistani jihadism.
Terrorists trained and financed by Pakistan for raids into Kashmir include Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT or "Army of the Righteous"), an Al-Qaida auxiliary. LeT established the first major radical Islamist network uncovered in the U.S. after 11 September 2001, the so-called "North Virginia paintball jihad" group, whose members were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison. LeT stood behind the Mumbai terrorist raid of December 2008, which shocked the world. David C. Headley, an American citizen born Daood Gilani, was a key figure in the bloody Mumbai incursion, and was arrested in Chicago, Illinois. Last year, he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.
Kashmir remains a major target for aggression by Pakistan, by Al-Qaida, and by their associates. Bin Laden might logically have considered it a more secure place of refuge if he knew he had to escape from his Abbottabad redoubt.
On other matters involved with the death of Bin Laden, I believe that he did not die a Muslim and was unworthy of an Islamic memorial service in the Arabian Gulf, provided by the U.S. authorities. The body of a dead Muslim would typically be consigned to the sea if he expired aboard a ship, without the opportunity to reach solid ground within the prescribed period for interment – 24 hours when possible. Bin Laden could have been buried at an undisclosed site on land. But it is generally accepted that neither the Saudi authorities nor the Bin Laden family would receive the body. Western media have speculated that disposal of the body at sea was justified to avoid creating a "shrine" for visits by radical Islamist "pilgrims." Given that Bin Laden was and Al-Qaida are fanatical Wahhabis who demolish shrines and kill those visiting them for prayer, this outcome was unlikely. Saudi Arabia does not permit prayer in the direction of Muhammad's tomb in Medina. No Wahhabi would desire a shrine built over Bin Laden's sarcophagus.
Yet another question remains: did Bin Laden die as a Muslim? Throughout Islamic history, denial of the wrong nature of outrageously sinful acts takes one out of the religion of Islam. In contravening the Islamic judgment that violence against civilians and other innocents is a gross transgression, in seeking to justify terrorism by spurious arguments, and in boasting of his actions, including financing and recruiting terrorists, Bin Laden was, in my view, an apostate from Islam, and did not merit any form of Muslim funeral rite.
Still, like any other American, and especially as an American Muslim, I found that Bin Laden's demise evoked many thoughts and recollections, which I will here set down.
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My involvement with South Asian politics began when I was still a revolutionary leftist, in 1971, aged 22. The Trotskyist movement of which I was a supporter declared solidarity with the independence effort in Bangladesh, and I joined demonstrations in which we shouted "Jai Bangla!" along with East Bengali Muslim immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area. While I had family connections by marriage with South Asia, I never imagined that Pakistan, in particular, would assume so great a role in my life, as it has in the past half-decade.
I was still a radical Marxist in 1979, although anti-Russian, when Moscow ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. The night I first heard the news, I went immediately to a copy shop in San Francisco and had 50 posters printed, with the message, "Down With Russian Imperialism! Afghanistan Will Be Liberated!" The struggle to free Afghanistan from Russian and local Communist control required a decade-long campaign; with the help of the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Russian forces were driven out. The error of the Afghan occupation decisively undermined Communism in Russia. As all observers agree, the error of the U.S. in trusting Saudi Arabia as financier and Pakistan as gendarme to maintain peace in Southwest Asia was also disastrous.
In 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had seized power in Pakistan, and in the early 1980s he visited San Francisco, where I was one of several journalists who interviewed him. I was struck by the candor with which he expressed his Islamist ideology, about which I then knew little. But in my mind, the need to expel the Russians from Afghanistan surpassed such considerations.
I broke with the radical left in 1984 and 13 years later, in 1997, I became Muslim. I had no religion previously, and did not "convert" to Islam. "Conversion" means change in religion, and Islam was and remains my first religion – if one discounts the false religion of Communism to which I had adhered. For any Westerner becoming Muslim, then and now, South Asia was bound to loom large, as a major presence in the Islamic global community, or ummah. Pakistan was known to all Muslims as a fountainhead of radicalism. Pakistan was more than the rearguard area for the Taliban, who took over Afghanistan in 1996, seven years after the Russian withdrawal and four since the fall of the local Communist regime. It was also the birthplace of Abu'l Ala Mawdudi, the extreme fundamentalist who "theorized" jihad against the West, and reinforced the influence of Saudi Wahhabism in South Asia.
Mawdudi condemned Sufism, the Islamic trend to which I was attracted based on my reading and my experiences during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, given that Balkan Islam bears a visible Sufi influence. According to Mawdudi, Sufism should be compared with sugar, and "Sufi excesses" would produce a "diabetic Islam." Further, it was obvious that many American mosques were and are dominated by Pakistani jihadis, including Taliban sympathizers, mainly organized in the so-called Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a front for the Jamaat-e-Islami created by Mawdudi.
On 11 September 2001, I was working as a national news editor for the Voice of America (VOA) in Washington, DC. I had not been public about becoming a Muslim. Aside from my outrage, fear, and grief at the assault on my native country, I was naturally concerned as to how an American Muslim with a "Jewish" family name – although my mother was not Jewish, I was not raised in that religion, and am not an apostate from it – would be treated in the aftermath of the horror.
Yet following the shock of the 2001 atrocities, I resumed a course of action that had begun with my Muslim profession of faith and in the interest of which I had gone to live in the Balkans in 1999. That was to oppose and expose the influence of Saudi Wahhabism, the interpretation of religion that inspired Al-Qaida, throughout Sunni Islam. I wrote two books dealing at length with Wahhabism, The Two Faces of Islam (2002) and The Other Islam (2008). I wrote many articles and gave numerous television and radio interviews on Saudi Arabia and its support for radical Islam. I had not become a Muslim and a Sufi to pursue such a counter-jihad against the extremists, but rather, for my own cultivation, including that of my work as an author and journalist. Still, a role as defender of moderate Islam was forced on me, and I accepted it, and have tried my best to fulfill it.
In 2004, I was introduced to the late Benazir Bhutto, whose faith in the capacity of her party, as led by her family, to defeat jihadism, seemed worse than naive. My doubts about her future as Pakistan's redeemer were vindicated when she was assassinated in 2007.
A new series of events called my attention to South Asia, beginning in 2005. As Al-Qaida had been defeated in its post-2003 invasion of Iraq, which was financed and directed from Saudi Arabia, the main theatre of jihadist bloodshed shifted back to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 7 July 2005 London metro bombings were carried out by a group of ethnic Pakistanis born in the UK. The same elements, preaching the same radical and violent doctrines, produced more terrorist conspiracies in the UK and U.S.
And worst of all, I observed that awareness of the Pakistani military sheltering Osama Bin Laden was common among Pakistani Muslims of all shades – jihadis, mainstream Sunnis, Shias, and Sufis. It was, I would say, an "open secret," although nobody could describe with certainty where Bin Laden was hidden. I and my colleagues in the Centre for Islamic Pluralism knew it was true, and we tried to warn government and media in both the UK and the U.S. about Pakistan's duplicity in dealing with the West. The Pakistani establishment wants to receive Western military and political aid on the pretext of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, yet has allowed the Taliban in Pakistan to pursue unabated terrorism, especially against Shia and Sufi Muslims and their shrines. That alone proves the nature of Pakistani "governance."
Nobody in a responsible position in the West listened to us. When I had published and debated in public about the Saudi Wahhabi influence in terrorism, many Westerners replied that little or nothing could be done about the problem – the U.S. energy industry was bonded closely with the Saudi state, and there seemed to be no means by which change could be brought about in Saudi Arabia from outside the country. Foreigners could not command the Saudis to disestablish Wahhabism as their sole, official creed. But another development in 2005 somewhat alleviated the Wahhabi problem. King Abdullah took the Saudi throne, and he always had a reputation among Muslims as a foe of Wahhabism and terrorism. The Saudi state scaled back the global Wahhabi da'wa (mission), removed terror supporters from its state institutions, and "exported" the Saudi Al-Qaida cadres to Yemen, where they exist today. Saudi Wahhabism had vacillated historically between hatred of the West and accommodation, first with the British and then with the U.S.
The "reform" begun by King Abdullah has not been perfect; neither has it been negligible. This constitutes another reason for the shift of jihadist aggression to Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistan has no leader capable of reducing radical influence in its government, especially its military forces and intelligence bodies. It nurtures a continuing grievance with its neighbour, India, over Kashmir, which is far more volatile than Saudi Arabia's rivalry with Iran. Extremist Pakistani Islamist doctrines, Deobandism and Mawdudism, allow for no compromise with the non-Muslim countries. Pakistan has never recovered psychologically from the Bangladesh liberation war, or accounted for the extensive violations of human rights committed by the Pakistani military and jihadists during it. And Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
To summarize, the shock of 11 September, and the Saudi origin of Bin Laden, forced the world to examine the nature of Wahhabism, even if, finally, the kingdom was left to resolve its problems on its own. In the Pakistani instance, however, there are too many incentives for the global powers, including the U.S. leadership, to remain passive in the face of Pakistani radical Islam and Pakistani deceit, which made the concealment of Bin Laden possible. Alarm about Pakistan has been dismissed routinely in the West as Indian government propaganda. When the U.S.-led coalition departs from Afghanistan, as has been promised, beginning in July of this year, it may well be predicated on a "peace agreement" with the Taliban. The Taliban will then resume its harsh dictatorship over the country, and radical jihadism will be reinforced inside Pakistan. Pakistan may then fail as a state, causing a massive humanitarian crisis, and driving millions of refugees across the borders into India and Iran, as well as to Bangladesh, the U.S., and the UK. Pakistani officials and their Western colleagues may protest that they had no foreknowledge of such an outcome.
But as with the terrorist strike master-minded by Bin Laden in 2001, they cannot say they were not warned. They have been warned, and have ignored the warnings, of Pakistan's complicity in terrorism. I predict that even now, after the death of Bin Laden under Pakistani protection, the Islamabad regime will not face a reckoning long overdue.