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 San Jose Mercury News, Tuesday, November 27, 2001




Taliban Campaign Still Drawing Support from Both Poor, Wealthy




LAHORE, Pakistan As the Taliban's leaders head for the hills, there is a real possibility their special brand of extreme Islam -- mixed with a dose of terror -- can survive and spread.


That is especially true if the diplomatic effort to establish a multi-ethnic coalition government in Kabul fails to represent the Afghan Pashtun tribes that gave birth to the Taliban. In the Pakistan government's worst nightmare, that could send a wave of unrest into Pakistan.


Supporting the Taliban already is a kind of fashion statement in the Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan and the center of economic and political power in this Muslim nation. If it takes root, however, there could be serious consequences for the long-term stability of Pakistan.


"There's euphoria in Pakistan now about the Taliban and Osama bin Laden," commented Said Ednan Shahid, editor of the Lahore-based Daily Khabrain. "Bin Laden is like a Rambo for the masses, the lone fighting machine who stands up to the powerful."


From primitive villages to grimy industrial towns to the glittering big city of Lahore, pro-Taliban sentiments in the Punjab already are pervasive, even as that government appears to be on its last legs. And anti-Western feelings are never far from the surface among the poor, as well as among Pakistan's educated elite.


The most radical of these views, expressed feverishly around the country in demonstrations after Friday prayers, have their origins in deeply entrenched poverty and widespread illiteracy that had been allowed to fester by a succession of Pakistani governments, both democratic and military.


The Taliban's popular sympathy is anchored in village life, where public education and information are scarce and poverty is rampant. In the Punjab, as elsewhere in Pakistan and in other developing Muslim countries, it is a story of high and low, with the disparity of incomes widening day by day.


Schools few, far between


Consider the situation in Garhqaim, a typical Punjabi village about 80 miles northwest of Lahore. The local elementary school stops at grade three, and the nearest government secondary school is 11 miles away, out of range for simple farmers who use bicycles and donkey carts for transportation.


In Garhqaim, where farmers still use camels to haul the rice harvest to the miller, life is peaceful, picturesque and tragic. It easy to see why Pakistan has a literacy rate hovering at about 40% and why per capita income is below $500.


The village is a warren of crumbling cobblestone alleys, lined with open sewer drains, a decaying brick ghetto terraced gracefully up a slope. It did not get electricity until 1983. Most homes use hand pumps to draw water. Fewer than 20% of families own televisions.


Thair Tabassam, 19, offers himself as a guide. He speaks passable English because his parents found a way to send him to Islamabad for schooling.


Tabassam said he admires the Taliban, and everybody he knows in the village supports them. These are not zealots educated to despise the modern world at religious schools, but simple farmers with practically no formal education at all.


"I like the Taliban," said Sultan Ahmad, 50, a taciturn village leader who grows rice and sugar cane. "People in Afghanistan have been suffering from war for 30 years. The American bombardment has only made it worse."


Ahmad's critical views about the U.S. role in the region are echoed at the other end of the economic spectrum.


"These problems of radical Islam all started in the past 10 or 15 years, when America cut back on development aid for Muslim countries," said S. Muhammad Ali Shah, 60, a well-to-do property owner who grows cotton and wheat on 200 acres of fertile Punjab land, deals in urban real estate and backs his young son's computer- assembly start-up in Lahore.


Shah is the image of a thoroughly secular Muslim, and he lives behind a high iron gate in a white mansion with towering columns.


"Not enough is being done for the poor in Pakistan," said Shah, the former president of Lahore's Rotary Club who is active in charity work. "The education system is terrible."


Sandwiched between these two extremes, Lahore's fledgling bourgeoisie also takes a hard view of America, putting them a step away from joining the ranks of radical religious political parties openly opposing the military government of President Pervez Musharraf.


Shahid said secular Pakistan is endangered because the only alternative to formal schooling for many indigent parents is to send their children to Islamic religious schools where they learn nothing about contemporary society.


"It all starts with education. For the past 20 years, Pakistan's defense spending has been 40 percent of the GNP (gross national product). Education never got much over 2 percent."


Mohammad Farooq Qadri, a moderate cleric at the Jamia Mosjid Rehmania Mosque in Lahore's upper-crust Shadman area, blames poverty for terrorism, but he also takes America to task.


"A poor man has no fear of death," said Qadri, whose mosque is just a few blocks from the slum. "After kicking the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, what has America done for the Afghan people? Nothing. America is responsible for what has happened there."


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