'The greatest threat to Islam'

How bin Laden's murder strengthened anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan

Igniting the fire

Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, Pakistanis are gearing up for a fight. But contrary to what many people might think, it’s not in defence of the world’s late King of Terror. In fact, Pakistanis have been remarkably silent about his death. Protests reported in the world’s media have been small—a few hundred diehard extremists ushered onto the streets by Islamic fundamentalist parties, the odd prayer session with a few dozen souls to help guide bin Laden into heaven.

Bin Laden was a hopeless cause to most. “He never really gave Muslims anything to believe in,” says Ali Ibrahim, a shopkeeper in Islamabad. “Except violence. But violence and jihad, where has that gotten us?” Dozens of other Pakistanis who spoke to Maclean’s echo Ibrahim’s sentiments. But what even they admit is that the driving force behind bin Laden’s murderous campaign was valid. “Millions of Muslims believe the U.S. is the greatest threat to Islam,” says Omer Malik, a lawyer in Islamabad. “Osama went about it all wrong, but he did prove to Pakistanis that America is the problem.”

The death of bin Laden has only strengthened that view. In the months leading up to his killing, Pakistanis—many fuelled by Islamic extremism—were already building up a solid foundation of anti-Americanism, premised on a decade of violence (which they blame on the U.S., for bringing it to their doorstep), CIA covert operations inside Pakistan, and a barrage of missile strikes from unmanned drones in the country’s Tribal Areas targeting al-Qaeda-linked militants. Now, the daring, dead-of-night operation carried out by U.S. commandos against bin Laden on May 2, apparently without Pakistani knowledge or consent, has hit at the heart of what many Pakistanis fear: the U.S. is willing—and able—to operate in their country with impunity.

Sovereignty has become the buzzword in Pakistan. Political pundits have latched on to it, parading through dozens of TV talk shows with dire warnings to America: “You have crossed the red line.” Nationalist politicians have turned it into a rallying cry in their fervent oratory. “The people of Pakistan have been made slaves by a government enslaved to the United States,” Imran Khan, the cricket legend turned politician, told an adoring crowd of thousands protesting U.S. drone strikes in Peshawar on April 23. “The puppets of the United States will not be allowed to stay in Pakistan; they will be forced to flee from the country as the people of Tunisia and Egypt did with their rulers.”

If there is any revolutionary fervour in Pakistan, it is invariably among those who blame the U.S. for all of the country’s ills. And hatred for the U.S. is a powerful force. It binds Pakistanis together in a way neither Islam, nor even cricket, can. American blunders in Pakistan—most recently the shooting of two Pakistanis on Jan. 27 in broad daylight on the streets of the country’s second-largest city, Lahore, by a contractor hired by the CIA—had pushed Pakistan’s tumultuous relationship with the U.S. to the edge of collapse. (The contractor was acquitted of murder after a pardon by relatives of the dead who’d received financial compensation.)

The killing of Osama bin Laden has only worsened things. And in its wake, U.S. drone strikes have taken centre stage in the deepening rift. There were already strains: on April 22, Pakistani military authorities reportedly told their U.S. counterparts to vacate an air base in Pakistan’s remote Baluchistan province used to launch drone strikes. U.S. generals have said they will continue the operations from an Afghan facility until the Pakistani military takes action against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants taking refuge in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.

Indeed, the attacks have continued. Since bin Laden’s death, drone strikes have hit alleged militants in various parts of the Tribal Areas. Pakistani politicians have countered with threats that the U.S. risks destroying its relationship with the ally at the core of Washington’s war against terrorism, with one going as far as to say the government is considering whether or not to order the army to start shooting down the slow-moving drones.

The threat may simply be a negotiating tactic: the Pakistani government doesn’t have the power to order its army to do anything. But Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister, has warned the U.S. that anti-Americanism is getting to the point now that his government may soon have no choice but to act. “I am not an army dictator; I’m a public figure,” he told Time magazine last week. “If public opinion is against you, then I cannot resist it to stand with you. I have to go with public opinion.” How much of what Gilani is saying is politicking, and how much is genuine regard for the concerns of Pakistanis, is impossible to gauge. There is no doubt, however, that his government has lost the confidence of the people since bin Laden’s killing, while other political figures, Imran Khan for example, have benefited immensely.

In fact, any politician who has been calling for a revolution against U.S. interference in Pakistan is now sitting pretty. But is such a revolution a possibility, given how intricate the ties between the U.S. and Pakistan are—not to mention the tens of billions that Washington has pumped into the country? And if so, what would be the consequences? No one doubts that they could be dire, should simmering hatred for the U.S. boil over into a truly mass protest movement. But is there a real danger of that happening?

On that, Pakistan’s young, representing around two-thirds of the country’s 187 million people, appear divided. “We don’t need a revolution,” says 22-year-old Sadia Masood, an international relations major at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. “We need evolution. Pakistan is not ready for a complete overhaul of its system. If that were to happen now, there would be chaos.” For dozens of young, moderate or secular-minded people who spoke to Maclean’s, Pakistan’s future would be threatened if mass protests, even against a widely hated nation like the U.S., were to happen now. “The problem is the gap between the secularists and the religious,” says Haider Ali Hanja, 23, president of the Quaidian Intellectual Forum at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University. “We need to bridge that gap. Whoever rises up to bridge it will be our leader.”

But people like Masood, Hanja and their fellow quiet evolutionists face a rising tide of angry young people mesmerized by the fiery speeches of leaders who have combined Islam and anti-Americanism to produce a rhetorical hybrid that appeals to both their hearts and their minds. Some of the most popular new breed of leaders in Pakistan invoke Islam as the only solution to Pakistan’s Faustian pact with the U.S. “People who don’t pray five times a day, who cannot recite the kalma [declaration of faith], should not be allowed to run for office,” says Zaid Hamid, a self-proclaimed security consultant, strategic defence analyst and youth leader, whose anti-Americanism borders on the fanatical. “Pakistan doesn’t need elections, it doesn’t need democracy. It needs patriots to stand up and take over the government.”

Even Imran Khan, once the playboy of Pakistani cricket, has turned pious. But he, like Hamid, doesn’t turn to fundamentalists like bin Laden for guidance. Both agree that violent extremism is as much a danger to Pakistan as U.S. interference. Both, however, have chosen to champion the anti-American cause to push forward their political ambitions. And it appears to be working: Khan and Hamid command significant followings on Facebook, and both names buzz through the burgeoning ranks of Pakistan’s university students.

After the death of bin Laden, their arguments have gained a new life. Other politicians from the entrenched leadership are taking notice. Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. is about to change; how that change unfolds, and who leads it, will not only redefine Pakistan’s future, but the future of the world’s struggle against Islamic extremism.

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