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The reasons are many, the history long

'Most had never met an American'

By Marion Lloyd, 9/16/2001

Two summers ago, a naming frenzy swept across northwestern Pakistan and along the country's culturally close-knit border with Afghanistan. Rather than choose the ever-popular name Muhammad for their new sons, families were picking Osama, in honor of a man they believe to be a hero of Islam. Many families were even renaming their toddlers in honor of Osama bin Laden - the man who Americans seen Americans see as Public Enemy No. 1.Number One.

The trend troubled Americans living in Pakistan. They worried that it signaled a rise in anti-Americanism in the region, one that could put them at risk of attack from bin Laden's supporters, either those in Pakistan or in nearby Afghanistan, there or across the border, where the Saudi fugitive was (and perhaps still is) in hiding.

But the Osama naming craze evoked provoked more than fear; it sparked bewilderment. Why would so many Pakistani families revere a man much of the world the Muslim world and Muslim Americans included believed to be a monstrous killer, and who had declared war on their American friends?

It was a question that plagued me throughout my 2 years in the region, during which I developed strong friendships with Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan , and surrounding countries. Most of them, like millions of Muslims throughout the world, oppose terrorism and expressed frustration at the readiness with which non-Muslims so often equate Islam with fanaticism. So I headed to the tobacco town of Mardan, 75 miles from the Afghan border, to look for answers.

I learned this: While most Pakistanis in the remote region had never met an American, they firmly believed that the United States, or at least its government, was their enemy. The proof, they said, ranged from Washington's seemingly unilateral support for Israel at the expense of the Muslim Palestinians; its seeming willingness to treat Muslim casualties as mere "collateral damage" (as in the August 1998 US missile strikes on Afghanistan, which failed to assassinate bin Laden but left dozens of Afghans dead); and what was seen as discrimination against Muslims in the United States, whose leaders and media often equate Muslims with terrorists.

One father in Mardan, a friendly real estate agent who proudly bounced his 10-month-old son, Osama, on his knee as he talked, declared the following before discovering my nationality: "I hope he grows up to kill Americans, because otherwise it is we who will be killed."

It wasn't the first time I had heard such a statement, which on the surface appeared paranoid and without foundation. Where did it come from? And how many of the world's billion Muslims harbor the same thought?

Israel is undoubtedly sore point number one. Muslims around the world watch as the United States professes to play mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians, yet our language is often far from impartial. If the Israelis occupy areas of disputed territory, official US statements and the media call the occupied areas "settlements," a term implying they are legitimate land holdings. A Palestinian suicide bomb attack is called a "terrorist act" while an Israeli assassination of a Palestinian suspect is a "targeted killing." Such distinctions alienate potential Muslim friends, and push others into the terrorists' camps.

Also fueling Muslim fears is the apparent ease with which first the Clinton administration, and now the Bush government, have shifted the United States' decades-old alliance with Pakistan in favor of that country's longtime enemy, Hindu-majority India. The reason for the change, many Pakistanis feel, lies in their country's diminished strategic importance.

Once a staging ground for the US-backed effort to oust the Russians from Afghanistan, Pakistan is now under pressure to curb training of Muslim activists within its borders. Often, the militants are the same individuals whose commitment Washington helped cultivate in its battle against the Soviets.

The United States is also pressuring Pakistan to influence Afghanistan's Taliban leaders, whose strict version of Islam was taught in US-financed training camps inside Pakistan during the 10-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, from 1980-89. Once a useful tool in Washington's war on communism, Islamic militants are replacing communist regimes as the predominant threat to US security.

When President Clinton - eager to develop new markets and allies against Islamic terrorists - made a historic visit to India last year, he employed flattery and an apologetic tone; it was in marked contrast to the frosty language that had previously marked US relations with India. For Muslims around the world, such facile shifts of allegiance are seen as proof that the United States acts only for short-term US interests. And the widespread feeling among Muslims that they are now on the losing side of those interests fuels their fears.

However, there may be reason for hope. If stereotyping all Muslims and Islamic nations as enemies of America fosters fear and hate among Muslims, then embracing the vast majority of Muslims who oppose terrorism might instead win us new friends.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was on the phone with Islamic leaders Wednesday, a day after the terrorist air attacks on New York and the Pentagon, seeking key support from the Middle East. The former Army general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs downplayed the need for immediate military action and emphasized the importance of fostering good relations. If our goal is to protect America and Americans, the best defense is good diplomacy.

Marion Lloyd is a Globe correspondent who worked extensively in Pakistan and in other Muslim parts areas of south Asia from 1998 to 2000.

This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 09/16/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.



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