BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 14.10.01

Film: IAIN WATSON describes the worries of Arab Muslim countries about the coalition's war on terrorism.

IAIN WATSON: In London, Afghan refugees are praying for those left behind in a country under bombardment. The reverberations of this conflict are likely to be felt far and wide. Tony Blair says the coalition against terrorism is getting stronger, not weaker - but with all his shuttle diplomacy across the Islamic world, this coalition seems to need as much care and attention as an ailing infant. Support for action in Afghanistan across the Muslim world has, so far been passive not active. But even this acquiescence could turn to disquiet or even opposition; if more and more Afghan people are killed or forced into exile; and there are fears the war may be extended beyond Afghanistan to encompass other Muslim nations. ONUR OYMEN: The important thing is that for all Muslim countries that this fight should not damage civilians, should not damage societies and everybody should be careful in targeting only military targets. ALI MUHSEN HAMID: Help the Afghani people by stopping the war, that's the most important thing. WATSON: This devastation, first broadcast on an Arab TV channel, was caused by a so-called Smart bomb, which went astray near Kabul airport over the weekend, landing on a residential area. The Allies have stressed that they are not targeting civilians, but too many incidents like these and America's carefully constructed coalition could itself be an early casualty of war. ROSEMARY HOLLIS: The coalition hanging together depends on how the operation in Afghanistan pans out. If it drags on, if there are many civilian casualties then the coalition will get more wobbly. SIR TERENCE CLARK: There is a certain dichotomy between the leadership who are in touch with other world leaders who have their representatives at the United Nations, they know the arguments, they see the logic of what is happening, whereas at street level they see rather the suffering, they see Muslims suffering and they identify very closely with them. WATSON: Muslim fundamentalists as far away as Indonesia are meting out rough justice to an effigy of President Bush; and Britain's involvement in the Afghan conflict hasn't gone unnoticed either. During the first week of military action, most opposition in the Muslim world was seen on the street, not in the corridors of power. But now, The twenty-two nation Arab league has begun to echo the demonstrators demands. HAMID: A whole village was destroyed, mosques were destroyed in many parts of Afghanistan, so people are very worried and don't support the war. WATSON: Do you think the bombing should stop? HAMID: I think it should stop. WATSON: This girl is one of more than a million refugees crammed into forty-eight camps along Pakistan's north west frontier; and the UN says that a million more Afghanis may yet be displaced. The border has now been closed to all but the old and the sick. In the frontier regions demonstrations and unrest seem likely to grow. Experts say the military regime of General Musharraf will weather the storm - but not without consequences. HAZHIR TEIMOURIAN: The sight of large numbers of refugees coming into his own country, continual demonstrations by extremists against the West and against his own regime, will be uncomfortable. But I think he shows every sign of confidence that the army is with him and if necessary he will massacre tens of thousands of demonstrators to show a lesson to the others. ATTIYA MAHMOOD: If any crowd becomes rowdy and tries to destroy government buildings, cars, buses, transport, infrastructure of course the government will deal with that accordingly. WATSON: In this phase of military action, using Cruise Missiles, may be coming to an end. But the Chief of Britain's Defence Staff has warned that a ground campaign certainly won't be over by Christmas; if it lasts well into next year more pressure will build on Muslim states. MAHMOOD: We have seen in the recent, in the last weeks, since the attacks, the physical attacks, that there are pockets of people who do not agree with that course of action. so it would be good for I guess the whole world if I may say so, for the actual physical attacks to end as soon as possible. WATSON: If there's to be a long war ahead, America would like to see Turkish troops like these more actively involved, as no mainly Muslim nation has yet committed forces. But Turkey may opt for a background role, possibly training Northern Alliance fighters to take on the Taliban, using techniques deployed against Kurdish insurgents. OYMEN: Our support will not be a theoretical support. I can assure you that we will be with our American friends in their fight against terrorism. Turkish troops are among the most experienced in Nato countries in combating terrorism under difficult conditions - we are of the opinion that we can share our experience with those in Afghanistan fighting for their freedom and liberty in case we are requested to do so. HOLLIS: It is difficult to see how Turkey can fulfil the role of America's need to have a Muslim state demonstrably within the Alliance. Yes, it is a Muslim state but is also a firm and long time member of Nato. This brings into question whether it will serve the needs of convincing other Muslim states who are much more overtly determinedly Muslim in their identity that this is not a war of the West against Islam. WATSON: Aware of the sensitivities, Britain sought to reassure Muslim states today that the West doesn't want to extend the conflict. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait a decade ago united most of the Arab world against it. But now the tables have turned. Relatively moderate Arab regimes fear the reaction from their own more radical populace, if some in the US administration prevail by going after Saddam. TEIMOURIAN: If there were to be a landing of American troops in Southern Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein in the Spring, I think it's safe to say that the Arab street, so called, will catch fire, there will be demonstrations everywhere. Maybe one or two Arab governments might even fall. HAMID: People will fight, will resist and Arab countries will not stand idly by against such aggression. All the Arabs will resist, will fight and then again we will have the same premises, West against East, Islam against Christianity, Arabs against and so on, that's what we want to avoid and enter into dialogue with the West. WATSON: Relations with the Muslim world are clearly strained. But if the West resists the temptation of opening up a second front in Iraq - and becomes much more active in seeking a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict - then we may yet see the dawn of a new era of co-operation. But there's a much darker scenario. If resentment continues to grow in the Middle East against British and American activities, then some experts say that previously pro-western governments may have to reassess their stance. And this could culminate in the nightmare of a new Cold War. As the current Palestinian uprising, or intifida, moves into its second year, Tony Blair announced that the Palestinian leader will visit Britain tomorrow, and said that military action in Afghanistan has to be backed by progress in the Middle East peace process; but some say this sympathetic rhetoric must be matched by a commitment to real change. CLARK: Clearly action on the Middle East peace process is key to the long-term stability of the Middle East. There has to be some clearly visible movement forward for example on the question of recognised, recognition of a Palestinian state. I think that would be a major step forward. HAMID: If the West will address the Palestinian issue, I mean I can say this will alleviate the resentment in the Arab world. WATSON: But if there's no substantial progress in the Middle East, and no early end to the global war on terrorism, some experts worry that Arab governments may distance themselves from the West in an attempt to neutralise their own fundamentalists. TEIMOURIAN: I do not believe that we are going to convince these people that the British and Americans are really genuine in their assertions - that it is not a war against Islam or against the Arabs so I expect that, in fact, resentment and opposition to the West across the Islamic world will grow over the next ten, fifteen years, even if we didn't have this sort of spark to make it worse. WATSON: Afghan refugees here in London are worried about the risks faced by family and friends they've left behind. but there's a wider fear that the action in Afghanistan may herald a more dangerous era of distrust between East and West, which could endure infinitely longer than the current conflict.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.