Int. Herald Tribune
As he hides, Bin Laden remains muslim icon

By Pamela Constable

Paris, Wednesday, May 10, 2000

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - - Reports circulated recently in this city near the Afghan border that posters had appeared with a message from Osama bin Laden, the fugitive Saudi financier wanted by the U.S. authorities on terrorism charges, calling on Muslim youths to wage holy war against the West.

The reports proved to be untrue, but they highlighted a persistent truth about the mysterious figure who lives under the protection of Afghanistan's Taleban government. Mr. bin Laden may no longer be a high-profile player in international Islamic causes, but his name still has the power to provoke equal measures of alarm and admiration.

To the West, Mr. bin Laden remains an elusive villain and an icon of Islam's malevolent extremes. He is one of America's most wanted criminal suspects, the alleged mastermind of two U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa. Washington takes every new report of his activities or utterances very seriously, no matter how unlikely.

But to many Muslims, especially residents of this frontier city teeming with Afghan refugees and political intrigue, Mr. bin Laden continues to be a proud if fading symbol of Islamic defiance against perceived Western encroachment and imperialistic designs in the Muslim world.

"He is a freedom fighter, and we respect him," said Bashir Ahmad, 22, a cloth seller and Afghan refugee. "When he fought the holy war against the Russians, the whole world supported him. Now the Afghan people are suffering on his account, but he is an honored guest, and an Afghan cannot simply ask such a man to leave."

Last year, the United States and the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Afghanistan, largely because of the Taleban's refusal to hand over Mr. bin Laden for prosecution forbombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzani on Aug. 7, 1998, in which 224 people were killed.

The Taleban, a conservative Islamic movement that controls most of Afghanistan, feels beholden to Mr. bin Laden, who helped finance the successful guerrilla campaign of Afghan militia groups against occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s. But now, hoping to ease its international isolation, the Taleban has silenced its benefactor and barred him from all public activities. When reports of the alleged bin Laden holy war posters circulated last month, Taleban officials issued a quick denial and suggested they might be aimed at discrediting Afghanistan.

At the same time, Taleban officials have insisted they will not consider surrendering Mr. bin Laden unless the United States provides them with hard evidence that he has been involved in terrorist activities.

In Peshawar, where many Taleban members received Islamic educations and some Muslim leaders dream of bringing a Taleban-style revolution to Pakistan, critics suggest the West's obsession with Mr. bin Laden is far-fetched and hypocritical.

"Osama bin Laden is just an excuse for the Americans to punish Afghanistan because it created a true Islamic state," said Maulana Ahmad Rasul, an Islamic scholar who runs a religious school. "If Osama bin Laden were to leave Afghanistan, or the issue were to be resolved, the Americans would look for another excuse to attack the Taleban."

Mr. bin Laden's whereabouts are secret, and he has been rumored to be visiting such far-flung places as Chechnya and the Philippines, both sites of Muslim rebellions. Reports of bin Laden sightings in Afghanistan also have been contradictory, with some suggesting he is wasting away from kidney disease, while others have him riding horseback.

To some Afghan refugees in Peshawar, the initial championing of Mr. bin Laden has given way to a weary wish that somehow the Taleban and the West could reach agreement on his status, allowing the sanctions to be lifted and the war-ravaged country to begin rebuilding in earnest.

"In some ways, I feel this Osama has ruined our country. All this fighting is just because of him," said a 25-year-old Afghan construction worker in Peshawar's largest refugee camp. "I would love to go home, but we need a stable government that does not have so many problems with the world."

The bin Laden issue has also complicated matters for Pakistan, which has close ties with the Taleban but is trying to crack down on terrorism and religious extremism. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military leader, has said several times he will visit Afghanistan and talk to Taleban officials about bin Laden, but he has yet to do so.

The United States has urged General Musharraf to use his government's influence with the Taleban to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice, and to press for a peaceful solution to the protracted civil conflict between the Taleban and armed opposition forces in northern Afghanistan. But the Taleban continues to defy international pressure on Mr. bin Laden and to insist it can win a military victory at home.

As Mr. bin Laden's profile continues to recede and Afghanistan's popular struggle against Soviet occupation has been replaced by years of fratricidal warfare among Muslim factions, even Peshawar, a city where hundreds of parents once named their sons Osama, now seems less attuned to the call for a Taleban-style Islamic holy war.

"It is our wish to become an Islamic state like Afghanistan," said Mufti Gholam ur Rahman, an Islamic educator. "But the conditions are different in Pakistan, so our approach must be different, too.We want to bring the revolution by educating people, not through the barrel of a gun."

Original article