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On the Road to Kandahar | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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On the Road to Kandahar

On the Road to Kandahar

On the Road to Kandahar

In 1991, Jason Burke, looking for a way out of delayed teen-age angst, decided to ditch everything, including his girl friend, to seek a way out of boredom in a dangerous land. At 21, he felt that life was slipping away with nothing to show for it. Hearing news of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent intervention by a US-led coalition, Burke decided to go “to the battlefield.” He found his way to Iraqi Kurdistan only to hear that the Americans were attacking from Saudi Arabia 600 miles away.

Nevertheless, the adventure enabled Burke to present himself as a “teenage guerrilla” to people back home, and weave a yarn of imaginary adventures for pub companions.

The experience had a more enduring effect. It started with fascination with the exotic. (How many young men have a chance to play Keystone Cops with murderous Kurdish gunmen?) That fascination generated an abiding curiosity, a lust for knowing, and eventually a deep sympathy for Muslims that hooked Burke for life.

In this fast-paced narrative of a decade of travelling and living in half a dozen Muslim countries that he labels “conflict zones”, Burke endeavours to share his fascination as well as sympathy. For the most part, he succeeds.

His main concern is to demonstrate the diversity of Islam and reject attempts in the West at turning Islam into a monolithic “other”. Muslims number 1,300 million and are a majority in 57 countries. They are divided into six doctrinal schools, and literally hundreds of sub-schools. Burke’s brisk reportages show that being a Muslim in Pakistan is not the same as in neighbouring Afghanistan let alone in far away Bosnia or Morocco.

That diversity, however, has not prevented Islamism from masquerading as the sole representative of the faith. Islamism is a political movement that, in its different versions, is seeking world conquest. At the same time, Burke weakens his own thesis that there is no single Islamic reality by constantly talking of “The Islamic World.”

As long as he sticks to reportage, Burke offers a good read. When it comes to analysis and philosophising, he is less convincing. For example, he accuses Western powers of fighting the “War on Terror” based on a “right wing paradigm” which he does not define. He complains that counter-terrorism experts have police and military backgrounds and, as a result, are biased in favour of military action. However, he does not say what background he favours for anti-terror experts? Should one recruit counter-terrorism experts from among ballet dancers or pastry chefs? Burke says that the Bible and the Koran “say the same thing”; something that both Muslims and Christians would dispute. He also claims that the 7/7 attacks in London were provoked by the war in Iraq. How does he know? Isn’t it more likely that the pro-Al Qaeda attackers, none of them Iraqi or Arab, were angrier about the fall of Mullah Omar than the demise of Saddam Hussein?

Burke’s claim that, with few exceptions, journalists in the US and Britain “repeat government propaganda” is not backed by evidence. He cites only three cases.

One is a photo of the official residence of the Taliban Governor of Kandahar that Burke sent to his newspaper in London. He was shocked to see it presented to readers as “Bin Laden’s Secret Base”. Another example is a report he sent of how he left Kandahar aboard a UN plane at the start of the US bombing of Afghanistan. His report was given the headline: How I escaped the Taliban! This was untrue; Taliban officials had actually cordially driven him to the airport to board the plane. The third example is a report by the New Yorker magazine that claimed that Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda and Iran had a common strategy against the West. That report was based on “revelations” by a Kurdish prisoner in Iraq. Burke found the prisoner, interviewed him and established that he had sold the New Yorker a bill of goods.

One of the most fascinating chapters relates Burke’s interview with a leader of the Iraqi insurgency, a scoop by any standards. The Iraqi tells Burke that his “brothers” feel especially humiliated because many American troops in Iraq are blacks. The main aim of the group is to “kill negroes”, regarded by Arabs as an inferior race.

The Holy Warrior goes on to say that his gang “sometimes aborted a mission {against the Americans} because there were no Negroes (sic) to kill.”

The insurgent leader ends the interview with a long soliloquy. He says, in part,: ” The US has the ability to stop all our problems. If the Iraqis have full bellies and a good life then no one would fight. Iraqis’ trop priority is to provide a good life for their family. The US is a very rich country and could build shopping centres and fill them with subsidised goods if it wanted to…”

Burke also interviews a number of American soldiers in Iraq and is shocked to see how uninformed they are about the land they had come to liberate and help rebuild. On of his interlocutors tell him that he did not expect to see ” towns, cites and things like that” in Iraq and would not be believe he was in Iraq until he saw a camel. The camel, however, turned out to be an advertising board for a local restaurant!

Burke’s view of Iraq is different from the fare of doom and gloom peddled by the media.

He writes: “Something in Iraq always had the paradoxical effect of making me more optimistic that the troubles of that country would eventually resolve themselves happily… I realised that my optimism was rooted in the daily contacts I had with ordinary people, the 24 million individuals who made up the nation of Iraq.” He adds that suicide bombers who “kill dozens might dominate the headlines” but are “far from representative of the vast bulk of Iraqis”, and that television coverage” focused on the most sanguinary episodes obscured the reality of life.”

Burke’s books would have benefited from more rigorous copy-editing and fact checking. It is marred by petitions and contradictions that an eagle-eyed ” copy reader” would have eliminated. There are also some bizarre errors. For example, he confuses the phrase that opens almost all of the Surahs of the Koran- In the Name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate- with the first of two phrases that denote belief in Islam: There is No God but God! Even then he gets the Koranic phrase wrong in a way that would anger many Muslims. One hopes that he did not pronounce the phrase in that way when he was trying to befriend Muslims, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is also misspelling of some names. For example, Edward Said, the American-Palestinian polemicist becomes Edmund Said.

What is refreshing is Burke’s overall optimistic assessment of the “conflict zones” he visited in the Islamic World. His message is that things are not going as badly as the Western media pretend, and that most Muslims he met favoured moderation rather than extremism. Those who regard the future of Islam as bleak at best would do well to read Burke as at least a partial antidote to their spleen.