Mixed messages follow September 11 (SCMP October 1)

So far, so good. The initial instinct to lash out blindly has been curbed. And the rest of the world can feel grateful that the US has a man of mature judgement as Secretary of State and that the US' allies in Europe have been sufficiently supportive to claim some influence over the response to September 11.

Even the outlines of some silver linings are appearing. President Bush' s support for a Palestinian state raises the possibility that this time around - unlike at the time of the Gulf War - the US will actually do something to reverse Israel's expansionism by settlement and force it back to the Oslo accords. Whilst the Palestine issue may be only a minor part of Bin Laden's agenda it remains the source of much of the region's hostility to the west - among non-Arab Muslims as well as Arabs of all faiths.

There is a chance that Syria will see this as an opportunity to come in from the cold - though it difficult to see how it can abandon support for Hamas until Israel itself is restrained. The situation should strengthen the reformist elements in Iran headed by President Khatami. The Russians have moved swiftly to strengthen their military ties with Tehran. This may make the US uneasy but should influence Washington to consider where US national interests in the region really lie. China can sit back and get praise for merely verbal support for the US meanwhile gaining advantage from the West's tussle with Islamic extremism and the marginalising, for now, of the missile defence issue.

It is quite possible now that Afghanistan itself may finally be delivered from its years of agony. Money and food will be powerful weapons in detaching the Taliban from the local community even in its Pushtu heartland. It has always been possible to buy the loyalty of many tribal leaders which is one reason why the war has lasted so long. It must by now have dawned on all the neighbours - Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Iran and now the US - that not only is the demise of the Taliban in their interest. They all need to stop using Afghanistan as a place for proxy wars whether over ideology or the ethnic links of neighbours.

An effort must be made to put Afghanistan back together again as a neutral, multi-ethnic buffer state. If they can agree that that is desirable, it should be possible. It might be especially difficult for Pakistan, with its own large Pushtu population. But it is perhaps even more important for Pakistan -- the long term alternative might be the dismemberment of Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Defeating the Taliban politically and covertly will take time but may be a surer means of dealing with them than an open war. They will try to present themselves as god-fearing victims of the enemies of Islam so that even as they lose they will increase the sense of injustice among Muslims who ought to despise them.

So much for the optimistic side. There is also plenty of negative fall-out from September 11. One must wonder whether the concentration of effort on the Taliban and Ben Laden's camps in Afghanistan is not setting us up for disappointment. The Taliban may be sheltering him but these medieval tribalists have a certain simple logic to them. They have a limited amount in common with the perpetrators of the World Trade Centre attack.

These were educated people with a messianic sense mission, of purification by destruction - a view of themselves and the world that the rest of us find very difficult to penetrate. They swim more easily in our modern urban sea than in the rock dump that is Afghanistan. Will getting rid of the Taliban, desirable though it is, tackle the problem of the Saudis, Egyptians, Algerians etc bent not on ruling Afghanistan but undermining the west?

The Afghan campaign may make good theatre but does it go the heart of the matter? A negative for the region could be a serious deterioration in India/Pakistan relations, and perhaps the improvement that was budding in US-India ties. India was quick to express support for the US but by so doing helped Pakistan make up its mind that its most sensible course was to go along with its old ally the US, hoping for some support for its position on Kashmir and figuring that it could contain the Muslim extremists who are vocal but have never received much support at the polls. Kashmir represents the fundamental problem of President Bush declaring a global war not just on the perpetrators of September 11 but "global terrorism".

The line between terrorist and freedom fighter is a thin one and a definition would help. Pakistan's views the Kashmiri insurgents it backs as "freedom fighters" even though some of their bomb attacks would appear to fall into most definitions of terrorism as surely as were the actions of the Stern Gang members in Palestine who went on to become ministers in the government of Israel.

The needs of the hour are also an opportunity for old fashioned ex-Communist megalomaniac thug rulers of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to get on with more suppression of dissidents in the name of fighting fundamentalism, and for China to present its suppression of Uighur nationalism as proper and beneficial. Conceivably these current alliances of convenience will backfire and drive democrats and nationalists into the arms of the religious right.

From Europe come warning signs about a backlash against Islam which could be extremely dangerous for a continent which already has large Muslim minorities. Europe, with its very low birth rates, may also have little choice but to absorb more people from North Africa and the Middle East to keep its economy on even keel and keep these poor neighbours from open hostility. Italy's prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's indiscreet comments about the superiority of western Christian civilization to Islamic civilisation was just the tip of a large iceberg.

It may not have been a surprise coming from Berlusconi, the media tycoon who vies with Rupert Murdoch for combining ruthlessness with boorishness But sentiments only marginally less prejudiced have become commonplace in the European media, including that pillar of British respectability the Financial Times. One of its economics writers treated readers to a thesis about the apparent incompatibility of Islam and modern economic development. He did not bother to back this up with any facts - for example to compare the largest Muslim countries' (excluding those rich only from oil) economic growth rates of the past 40 years with those either of the average in the developing world, or between Muslim nations in one region compared with their non-Muslim neighbours. In east Asia that would mean comparing Indonesia with, say, China or Vietnam, or Malaysia with Thailand, Burma and the Philippines. Elsewhere in the world it would mean, for example, comparing India with Bangladesh. Turkey with Rumania, etc. Equally one could compare Iran or Egypt with Colombia or Brazil. There are of course plenty of horror stories in the Muslim world - but so there are in the Buddhist one, as witness Burma and Cambodia. Latin America despite Christianity, cultural links to Europe and North America and an abundance of natural resources has a poorer record of growth and even of social progress such as in women's education than the average of major Muslim countries over the past 40 years. Despite the protestations of western leaders that they are not prejudiced against Islam, levels of ignorance are profound and it is not surprising if Muslim-majority countries, including such aggressively secular states as Turkey, believe that Mr Berlusconi is more representative of Europe than those who criticised him. One month after the horror of September 11, the potential of reactions to be a power for good or for the creation of more mayhem is finely balanced. ends

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