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Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
Quetta opinions divided on holy day
Anti-US demonstration
Despite official support for the US, opinions are divided
Daniel Lak

On a barren sun-baked ridge, high above Quetta city, sits a remarkable monument to the Islamic faith, and especially its more mystical local variant.

The Koran
Muslims are enjoined never to dispose of old Korans
In a series of caves, painstakingly gouged by hand from the hard scrabble clay and stone hillside, two men have placed bundles of worn out, torn, water stained or generally unreadable copies of the Holy Koran. One of the men is Wali Mohammed.

He explained to me that Muslims are enjoined not to burn or dispose of old Korans, not to treat them as household rubbish.

"So we collect the books, bundle them up and leave them in our caves.

We have 12,000 of them now," he says proudly, gesturing at the caves.

Demands for evidence

A family has come to pray at the main shrine in front of the largest cave.

Several women - clad modestly in chadors - and five children kneel on woven rush mats.

Ghulam Mohamed waits outside. It's his family. "People come to pray to Allah here," he says. "To ask for something or give blessings. It's a holy spot."

Like many in Quetta, and all over Pakistan, Ghulam Mohammed is troubled by the possibility of American-led military attacks on Afghanistan, or attempts to capture Osama Bin Laden by force.

If they could produce some evidence, maybe Muslims would support them

Ghulam Mohammed
He says he condemns all violence, especially the attacks on America. "But where is the evidence?

"If they could produce some evidence, maybe Muslims would support them."

His fingers click prayer beads and he wanders off to sit in his car.

Just below the shrine, in the courtyard of a spacious private home, very different sentiments are on display. About 1,000 men have gathered.

Some sit on the roof, their turbans unwound and held over their heads to shelter from the sun.

Anti-US demonstration
Anti-US sentiment is commonplace in Pakistan
All join frequent chants of "Victory to Islam," and "Death to America and its allies."

This is billed as a "jirga", the local name for a formal gathering of tribal elders, a sort of parliament where all can speak and a collective decision is made.

But the chants, in response to fierce rhetoric from speaker after speaker, show that there's little difference of opinion here.

A cleric named Maulvi Masoud Akhtar declares "jihad on all non-Muslims". Several people say attacks on the World Trade Center were part of an Israeli conspiracy to defame Muslims.

Tribal leader Haji Shahasta Acchazai, in a booming voice more suited to commanding a desert raiding party than addressing a political meeting, says: "America is the terrorist, not Osama Bin Laden."

Mixed opinion

A local newspaper editor, watching sceptically, cautions the many foreign journalists covering the meeting to take the speeches with a pinch of salt.

"This is not a tribal gathering, it is a photo opportunity for you and your cameras," he says, "Opinion here is much more mixed on the current crisis."

No sign of mixed opinions in the headquarters of the Jamiat-Ulema-Islami, the Pakistani-based religious party whose madrassas, Koranic schools, produced many Taleban fighters from 1994 onwards.

Demonstration in support of Osama Bin Laden
There is much support for Bin Laden on the streets
Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haidari, the secretary-general of the party, speaks softly but with conviction.

"The Americans and the Pakistani Government are both wrong on this issue.

We will not allow attacks on Afghanistan. Even the Pakistan army won't fight against our Afghan brothers, the enlisted men will refuse to fight."

He says there is no chance that the Taleban will hand over Osama Bin Laden to the United States.

"If they want him, they must produce the evidence," he says, echoing statements from the Taleban. "Even then he can only be tried under Islamic law".

If the Americans want war, they'll find one in Afghanistan

Ali Ahmed Haider
A sign advertising "Mars English Academy, Learn to Speak Today" hangs above a tea shop in a nearby alley.

Underneath, people sip green tea flavoured with cardamom and discuss the situation - and here you find a true cross section of opinion. One man, Ali Ahmed Haider, sums things up succinctly.

"If the Americans want war, they'll find one in Afghanistan, and I'm not threatening them. I won't fight. But if they want justice, then there should be no fighting, no more attacks. More violence is not the answer."

See also:

25 Sep 01 | South Asia
The wild border town of Quetta
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