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Strange rumours in Pakistan

g and compass

National Post Online

September 21, 2001

Pakistan's waning middle ground
Young Pashtun men who play lawn tennis face a choice between East and West

Patrick Graham
National Post

Vine-covered trees obscure a small, dun-coloured monument hidden behind St. John's Anglican Cathedral, its letters nearly worn off the white stone scroll.

Privates A. George, T. Hale and J. Hoare never made it out of Afghanistan. Few invaders have.

Some 236 other British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in 1919 during the campaign historians call the Third Afghan War.

Eighty years earlier, in the First Afghan War, nearly 20,000 British soldiers and their dependents were slaughtered.

The walled compound of the cathedral was quiet yesterday afternoon. Dozens of hawks, looking for prey, perched on the upper branches of trees dating from the 19th century.

Nearby, a road through the cathedral's gardens, closed by a barricade since September 11, wound past other cenotaphs for Britain's war dead.

For many here, the United States' apparent plan to bomb neighbouring Afghanistan smacks of yet another imperial military expedition.

Today, an anti-American general strike is planned in Peshawar, the frontier city that is home to thousands of Pashtuns who share their heritage with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, that country's largest ethnic group. The protests are to start after morning prayers.

"Up until now there have been no problems," said Bishop Cecil J. Williams. "But tomorrow is Friday," Islam's holy day.

For the 60,000 Christians of Pakistan, it is hard to know which term is more terrifying, jihad or crusade, the word ill-advisedly used by the U.S. President last week to describe his plans for retribution. As the divide between the Islamic and Western world grows, they are inevitably caught in the middle.

"Bush should not have used the word crusade because it always means a fight against Muslims," the bishop said, sitting in the living room of his one-storey colonial house near the cathedral. "It is not a jihad against a religion, it is a jihad against a country."

Eventually, he says, there could be attacks here like the recent hate crimes in the United States.

At the Khyber Club, formerly the American Club until the name was changed for security reasons, the chairs are stacked on the veranda. Once a quiet escape for Western expatriates -- Pakistani and Afghan Muslims were not allowed into alcohol-serving premises -- the club is protected now by security guards who keep the gates locked.

"It's all quiet now. But if the Americans attack Afghanistan there will be bombs going off in buses around here," said a shotgun-toting guard, gesturing to the walled compounds of diplomats and aid workers.

Amir Anwar, the club's manager, is happy to talk, but no one is allowed in past the palm trees and freshly mowed lawn. Extra security, including plainclothes policemen, he says, are patrolling the area.

The middle ground in Pakistan is fast disappearing. East is East and West is West, only more so.

Strange rumours circulate about the bombing in New York and U.S. relations with Osama bin Laden. The accused Saudi terrorist, some say, remains in the pay of the CIA. Others are firmly convinced that hundreds or thousands of Jews -- or "Israelis" -- mysteriously failed to show up for work at the World Trade Center on the day of the bombing. Surely, they say, the attack must be the work of Israel.

To doubters, George W. Bush's use of the word "crusade" only confirmed suspicions of American hostility to the Muslim world.

"In fact it is the United States that perceives the threat of her isolation in the world as she competes with the EU, China and Russia, and a challenge from emerging Muslim block stretching from Indonesia to Morocco," reads a press release handed out to journalists by the Hizb ut-Tahrir party. "America knows the only way to maintain supremacy is to divide Muslims from each other."

At The Edwardes College, a century-old school built during the days of the British Raj, young Pashtun men play lawn tennis as boys chase down stray serves.

Even the school itself hovers somewhere between West and East, its red brick building designed according to Canon Huw Thomas, the headmaster, in Mogul-Gothic style.

Outside the headmaster's house, four tame grey cranes make their awkward way across the grass between palm and eucalyptus trees like a scene from a Mogul print.

"We cannot be in the business of revenge -- justice, yes, revenge, no," said Canon Thomas, a Welshman who arrived from England to run the school six months ago.

"To bomb Afghanistan is revenge. To root out those directly responsible for the atrocities, of course, is right. But it cannot be right to add the bloodshed of those who cannot be held directly responsible."

The danger, he suggests, is oversimplification. The East, Asia and Islam are lumped together, and Christianity is confused with the West.

Having worked both in Egypt and the Sudan, the Anglican priest is used to living in cultures with a high degree of anti-Western sentiment.

"We have given the impression that we are governed entirely by self-interest and have created a cynicism about the West which we have to address," he said. "We cannot divide the world into goodies and baddies."

His Pashtun students, who read the newspaper and use the Internet, are confused.

The elite of Peshawar, they sympathize with the Afghans and are startled by the outpouring of anger directed, seemingly, at them and their culture. If Afghanistan is bombed, they may be forced to make a choice between East and West.

When the British left Pakistan they left behind more than cenotaphs and lawn tennis, but that hybrid culture may soon disappear.

The Americans aren't likely to stay as long, but the list of casualties could extend well beyond the little list of names joining Privates A. George, T. Hale and J. Hoare.

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