In January 2003 I had lunch with an Afghan I knew in Fremont, California. This highly assimilated jeweler of Tajik descent, who had lived in the U.S. since the 1980s, had thrived here; now he lived in a gated community and could watch CNN and Al-Jazeera on the largest TV I had ever seen.
This man, who I’ll call Hamid, was a big supporter of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, not least because he had personally hosted Ahmed Shah Massoud at his Fremont home for a Northern Alliance fundraiser. Hamid took it personally when Al-Qa’ida assassins killed Massoud on September 9, 2001.
For whatever reason, I asked his opinion of the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq. Here are some of the notes I took on our conversation afterward:
[Hamid] says that the recent confrontation with North Korea has proven to him and "100 percent" of Muslims that a prospective war on Iraq is a war against Islam. Iraq, he says, was developing nuclear weapons so as not to be pushed around by the U.S. or Israel. North Korea has nuclear weapons but will not be attacked; but Iraq, which does not have them, will be.
[Hamid] sees Islam as the major distinguishing factor here and predicts that just as men from 40 countries joined the mujahideen in fighting the godless Soviets, so will they flock to the side of Iraq--or at least flock against the U.S., Britain and Israel--if there is a war there. He thinks that moderate Muslims who had previously not thought of a U.S. attack on Iraq as a war against Islam will change their minds.
Later, Hamid took a phone call from someone and had a brief conversation. When he hung up, my notes continue,
... He said that there had just been a rocket attack on Kabul and attributed this to Afghan warlord Gulbadin Hekmatyar. ... In the event of an Iraq war, attacks like this would increase dramatically as Muslims rallied against what he said would be characterized as a Crusader war.
Three and a half years later, Hamid’s predictions have panned out and U.S. policy toward North Korea remains plagued by a foolish inconsistency, as Emerson might have said. While I don’t think the Iraq war is a Crusader war, I can see where Muslims would misinterpret the gap between U.S. speech and actions as pure hostility to the Islamic world.
There are good reasons to not bomb or invade heavily armed North Korea, even in the wake of this week’s missile launches by Pyongyang; but Muslims will likely misinterpret President Bush’s restrained diplomacy as a lack of follow-through toward a country that not only says it has nukes, but keeps firing potential launch vehicles into the Sea of Japan like roman candles.