Two views of the war on terror: Burke fights stereotypes, Musharraf seeks moderation

Montreal Gazette
Saturday, November 25, 2006

By Jason Burke
Bond Street Books/Doubleday Canada, 228 pages, $32.95

By Pervez Musharraf
Free Press, 354 pages, $38.50

Jason Burke had an unusual start to his journalistic career. He began as a peshmerga, a Kurdish guerrilla fighter, in northern Iraq, in 1991. Luckily for him and for us, Burke survived unscathed this rather extreme version of the end-of-college backpacking trip, and went on to become a brilliant reporter.

Yet the few weeks he spent roaming the foothills of northern Iraq with Kurdish peshmerga marked him and awakened in him an undying interest in the Islamic world and radical militancy.

Over the last decade, he has travelled all over the enormous crescent of predominantly Muslim countries, stretching from North Africa, through the Middle East and central Asia, to southeast Asia.

On the Road to Kandahar is Burke’s second book. Along with his award-winning, Paris-based reporting for the Observer, Burke’s first book, Al-Qaeda, established him as a recognized authority on Islamic militancy and radicalism.

On the Road to Kandahar is more of a travelogue, an intellectual and deeply personal journey of human encounters through the incredible and hugely underappreciated diversity of the Islamic world.

Burke is engaging, perceptive and brilliant as he dismantles one by one Western stereotypes and misperceptions of Islamic radicalism. What emerges is a far more nuanced view, with a lot more shades of grey than we are usually shown by the media or Western security experts.

One also realizes how flawed is the prevailing Western analysis of Islamic radicalism that has become the ideological backbone of the War on Terror, the myth that Al-Qa’ida is a coherent terror machine run by a Central Committee of evil geniuses hiding in some Afghan cave.

In Burke’s view, Al-Qa’ida, rather than being a single organization with a global reach, has morphed into a potent ideology that is capable of feeding off local frustrations and grievances to produce a deadly mix of hatred and destruction.

Still, Burke’s conclusions are profoundly optimistic. He believes in the decency and humanity of thousands of ordinary Muslims he has encountered throughout his travels.

Burke’s optimism and faith in moderate Muslims gets a boost from a surprising source.

General Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan and a military dictator, is not someone you’d associate with moderation.

But that’s exactly what Musharraf is advocating as the key to winning the War on Terror in his memoir, In the Line of Fire. Whether Musharraf is playing the wise statesman or genuinely believes this is unclear.

In the Line of Fire is a curious mix of sentimental reminiscence about childhood; painfully bland chapters detailing a military career, sprinkled with a dose of pathos and nationalism; fascinating chapters on terrorism and nuclear proliferation; and the pontificating musings of a military dictator over the future of his country.

In the midst of all this, Musharraf managed to plant explosive revelations that were sure to grab headlines and boost the sales of his memoir.

Musharraf raised eyebrows in the United States with a claim that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Richard Armitage, then the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, threatened the visiting Pakistani intelligence chief: “Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the stone age,” unless Pakistan joined the fight against Al-Qa’ida.

The CIA has been angered by a further revelation in his book that the agency made secret payments to his government worth hundreds of millions of dollars in return for turning over hundreds of Al-Qa’ida suspects to the U.S. – all this publicity just on the eve of Musharraf’s official visit to the United States earlier this fall.

Officials in the United Kingdom were irked by allegations in the book that Omar Sheikh, the British national sentenced to death in Pakistan for the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl, had been recruited by the British intelligence agency, the MI6.

But by far the most fascinating chapters of the memoir deal with the cloak-and-dagger operations against the Al-Qa’ida network in Pakistan. The details of investigations into failed assassination attempts against Musharraf are a captivating window into the world of suicide bombers, forensic science and counterterrorism work.

Levon Sevunts is a Montreal writer.

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