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Islamist Extremists Gain Upper Hand in Kashmir Relief Efforts

MUHAMMAD’S SILENT ARMY

Islamist Extremists Gain Upper Hand in Kashmir Relief Efforts

By Susanne Koelbl
February 25, 2006
Der Spiegel

Islamic extremists are trying to win over the hearts and minds of earthquake victims in Pakistani Kashmir. Their efforts come at a convenient time for the Pakistani government.

The people of Kashmir just call them “the militants,” and 25-year-old Mohammed Maqsood is one of them. His beard is dark and long, and his head is covered with a Palestinian scarf. He refuses to shake women’s hands, and he never looks directly at their faces when he addresses them.

Men like Maqsood were the first aid workers to arrive in the disaster zone on the morning of Saturday, October 8, when a devastating earthquake struck the Kashmir region. All were well-trained young men, and all were bearded.

They conducted systematic searches for survivors in the rubble of ruined buildings, often digging with their bare hands. In the first two days following the earthquake, the bearded young men seemed to be the only ones with a well-functioning network — both in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani state of Azad Kashmir, and in the completely devastated settlements of Bagh and Balakot. Many local residents owe their lives to these aid workers.

Today Maqsood is the acting director of the Al-Rahmat Trust Camp, a refugee camp for earthquake victims in central Muzaffarabad. Al-Rahmat is loosely translated as “Mercy.” It’s an open secret that the organization is the civilian wing of a banned guerilla organization, Jaish-e-Mohammed. Jaish-e-Muhammad, or “Army of Muhammad,” and its fighters are battling Indian security forces in the Indian section of Kashmir in an effort to “liberate” the Indian-held side of the Kashmir Valley.

Maqsood sits on a floor cushion in his office and has an aide serve milk tea and biscuits. He has had little contact with foreigners from the West. But he is familiar with the images of torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, as well as with publicized photos from the US terrorist detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Maqsood harbors a deep dislike for non-Muslims, especially Americans.

The Taliban ideal

Afghanistan under the Taliban government was what Maqsood would consider an ideal, God-fearing Islamic society, and he still reveres Taliban leader Mullah Omar as the greatest living Muslim. The Americans, he says, bombed his dream to bits. Maqsood has been angrily following the controversy over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad printed in the Danish and other European media. As far as Maqsood is concerned, the dispute is a long way from being resolved. “We want revenge,” he says.

Maqsood would like to see the Danish government send the people responsible for the cartoons to the gallows. And if the death penalty doesn’t exist in Europe, he says, the cartoonists and other employees of the newspaper should be extradited to an Islamic country to stand trial. Otherwise, he believes, there can be no peace. Maqsood refuses to accept the notion that the entire matter was little more than a misunderstanding between different cultures, and that a regime like the Danish government cannot be held responsible for the independent actions of its citizens. After all, he says, didn’t the Americans bomb the Afghan people when they went after terrorist leader Osama bin Laden? And what did the Afghans have to do with al-Qaida, he asks?

More than 7,000 aid and rescue workers from all over the world rushed to Kashmir after last year’s earthquake, and soon small, private aid organizations were working side-by-side with major international groups. Given the sheer magnitude of the disaster, differences seemed barely relevant, at least initially. Cuban medical personnel were cooperating with American military doctors, while rival religious groups operated joint shelters for those who had lost everything.

It was also a golden opportunity for Islamists.

Hardly anyone is as familiar with the mountainous region of Azad Kashmir as the self-appointed freedom fighters. They set out on foot for villages that had been completely cut off from any aid by landslides. They brought blankets and food, performed first aid and transported the wounded down into the valley. Most importantly, however, in many places they were the only ones providing help.

At the time, 13 teams of doctors were working under the flag of the Al-Rahmat Trust. Maqsood says that he himself has walked up to 60 kilometers into the mountains to deliver aid. His organization still maintains a team of about 200 men in the area.

The Hamas model

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf banned militant groups and shut down their training camps in Kashmir four years ago, but their networks apparently survived. These days, the groups operate openly in the earthquake region, albeit under new names and mottos — and as charitable organizations.

Their politics and policies resemble those of the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East, where radicals have filled the vacuum left by the state. They develop social institutions and help address the local population’s day-to-day survival needs. In the long term, this social role also helps the local population identify with the respective groups’ political goals.

The mosque of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a group of radical imams, is made of blue tarps, like most of the tents housing the region’s refugees. As the faithful fill the makeshift mosque to capacity, Javed ul-Hassan, the imam and religious scholar in charge of Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s aid programs, delivers the Friday sermon inside.

The organization, with its many camps and hospitals, ordinary schools and Koran schools, is the region’s strongest and most powerful Islamist aid organization. It is closely associated with the banned Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, or “Army of the Pure,” which, like Jaish-e-Mohammed, sends its fighters into the Indian section of Kashmir to kill soldiers and blow up military barracks. Both groups are also suspected of having committed the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi.

Hassan, the imam, is trying to convince his congregation to participate in a protest march against the Danish Muhammad cartoons. “If we do not defend our religion,” he says, inciting the crowd, “we will soon become slaves of the West.” He insists that non-Muslims have no respect for other cultures, and that it’s too late for apologies. According to the imam, the only possible response to the blasphemous cartoons is “jihad, holy war!”

That evening Hassan sits in his tent, surrounded by military-style maps of the region. While multitasking with two mobile phones and a computer, he has an aide serve Saudi Arabian dates and sweet Halwa. His group is affiliated with a strict sect from Saudi Arabia, and Hassan is more than eager to describe his mission: “We are fighting for the rebirth of the true Islam.”

What Hassan understands under the term true Islam is in evidence at one of his refugee camps in Kori Piran on the Neelum River, an hour’s drive north of Muzaffarabad. The 25-year-old camp commander, Amir Abdullah Taher, has been a member of the holy war movement ever since his early youth, completing military training in Afghanistan at the age of 15. Since then, he has been convinced that it is only a matter of time before Jews and Christians will realize that the Prophet Muhammad is the only Almighty — and the entire world becomes Muslim. His young wife wears a floor-length hijab with only a slit for her eyes, like the women in Saudi Arabia, and despite warm temperatures, she also wears gloves. Even 10-year-old girls wear veils in the camp.

Respect from Islamabad

Almost all aid groups in Kashmir are Islamic organizations, but most are not radical. Their work, including that of the fundamentalists, is held in high regard by both the government and international organizations. “As long as they don’t arm themselves and recruit rebels, there isn’t anything wrong with what they are doing,” says General Shaukat Sultan, a spokesman for President Musharraf.

His words reflect the hope that earthquake relief may have given the Islamists a new purpose. Ever since the armistice of late 2003, it has become much quieter along the so-called Line of Control (LOC), which represents the border between the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir. The number of attacks on the Indian side has dropped considerably, partly as a result of the Pakistani government’s ban on militant groups.

At times, it has even seemed as if the natural disaster had finally triggered political rapprochement between the two hostile neighboring countries. Border crossings were opened along the LOC to allow aid deliveries to pass between the two parts of Kashmir. Musharraf also put forward far-reaching political proposals, offering self-administration and demilitarization for the region. But his proposals have not been met with any concrete responses, at least not yet.

How the situation will develop remains unclear. Both sides are keeping their options open in anticipation of a new escalation of their long-standing conflict. So far the Indians have not withdrawn many of the 600,000 troops they keep stationed on their territory. The Pakistanis, for their part, have made sure that their military freedom fighters can be reactivated at any time.

The Islamists are taking advantage of the lull to gain support for their cause among Kashmiris. The inhabitants of this mountainous region are traditionally seen as conservative but nevertheless tolerant of other religions.

But the Islamists’ rigorous attention to local residents traumatized by the loss of their homes and families could be making an impact. The organizations are planning for the long term and intend to continue working toward reconstruction in Kashmir this coming spring. They appear to be generously funded by Muslims from Saudi Arabia and by overseas Pakistanis.

Despite international cooperation, earthquake-plagued Kashmir remains a dangerous place, both as a safe haven and breeding ground for militant Islamists — and for extremists waiting in the wings until the next holy war rolls around.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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