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Murder in Karachi’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

And so it is that I had to wait for William Dalrymple’s review of my book [NYR, December 4, 2003] to learn that Karachi, the city where Daniel Pearl was beheaded, is an “almost glamorous” city.

I have had to wait for this review to discover that this city isn’t the city without women that I describe, as Mr. Dalrymple clarifies from his seat in the airport’s “glitzy departure lounge” where he saw “chic Pakistani women journalists” and “models” being served “cups of chai” by “smiling turbaned waiters.” The women of the city’s vast slums, forced to hide their poor smiles beneath a veil, and especially the 372 women killed or maimed during 2002 alone for not being models or journalists and going without the veil—known in Pakistan as a crime of honor—will, I suppose, appreciate the surreal character of such a description!

The problem, as it concerns me, is that in his eagerness to show that my investigation was merely the work of a rabid anti-Pakistani, Mr. Dalrymple loses the most elementary intellectual honesty: leave aside the insults (they border on the ridiculous); leave aside the accusation that I have besmirched the memory of Pearl (sufficient for me is the declaration of Ruth and Judea Pearl in the October 19 Los Angeles Times, commending the “first investigative book” attempting to follow in the “footsteps” of their son); what I can’t leave aside are the many instances in this article where the rights of free criticism serve as excuse for slander, lies, or disinformation.

Particularly egregious is the reproach that I do not distinguish between “secular Pakistanis and their Islamist rivals,” whereas the entire book, in particular its final chapter, entitled “Gentle Islam,” pleads for this necessary, indispensable, vital distinction.

Then, there is the stunning chutzpah with which Mr. Dalrymple appropriates, but only to use against me, the very heart of my thesis, my leitmotif—the idea that the real war of civilizations opposes not the “West” against the “rest” but, inside the very bosom of the “rest,” inside the Islamic world, the radicals against the moderates, the partisans of jihad against those of Enlightenment and tolerance.

Equally astonishing: the sleight of hand which, with the one, Dalrymple brushes aside hypotheses I advance, and with the other appropriates them purely and simply as his own to, again, use against me. Among numerous examples, the long paragraph where Mr. Dalrymple begins by saying that “contrary to what Lévy attempts to prove, it is most improbable that the ISI had a direct hand in Pearl’s abduction and murder” and where he adds, in the very next sentence, that Omar Sheikh had been an agent of ISI “since his student days in London,” then concludes the paragraph by saying that he was “connected with its officials” through his jihadist organization, and that it would have been “impossible” after his Indian period to “settle in Pakistan without ISI clearance”—all theses which are at the center of my investigation and several of which I believe I have contributed in establishing.

Then, the errors in the details with which my book is supposedly rife: from the address of the Sheikh family in London, Deyne Court Gardens, which I give with the inexactness necessary when one is concerned with protecting those who live there, and which would have been easy to verify if Mr. Dalrymple, instead of being satisfied with the London A-Z street atlas, had taken the trouble to redo the investigation I myself did—from the Sheikh address, then, to points of Pakistani politics where he undertakes to correct me when it is he who, in this strange philippic which vacillates between bad faith and ignorance, leads the reader astray.

An example of bad faith: Dalrymple feigns to believe that I define Pakistan as the “house of the Devil.” Yet it is obviously not of Pakistan that I speak where the reference occurs (on page 305) but of one location, and only one: the madrasa of Binori Town.

Another example: Dalrymple makes the reproach that I “repeat as fact,” without citing my sources, “gossip” according to which Osama bin Laden had received “medical treatment” in a military hospital in Peshawar. Beyond the fact that I did indeed note the information was “gossip,” I also cited two sources (Jane’s Intelligence Digest, September 20, 2001; CBS News, January 28, 2002, on page 305 again).

In another example, he presents as coming entirely from my imagination the “claim” that Omar Sheikh contributed to financing the September 11 attacks. Here again, the question is raised as to whether Mr. Dalrymple has read my book or has knowingly misrepresented it: the long chapter that I devote to this question, entitled “Jihad Money,” is based on a lengthy series of sources (CNN, October 6 and 8, 2001; The Hindu, October 13; Associated Press, February 10) all cited with particular care (page 321).

And examples, finally, not of bad faith but of mere ignorance: Omar Sheikh never had, as Mr. Dalrymple says, a “period fighting against the Indian army in Kashmir”; his first arrest, in 1994, did not happen while “trying” to kidnap tourists in Delhi, but after he had done it; the cliché that he became an Islamist “after witnessing horrors among the slaughtered Muslims of Bosnia” is only attested in the version of his biography rewritten, after the fact, by the ISI; and, as for the case of Abdul Ghani Lone, the Kashmiri leader whose presence in the Hotel Akbar, a few months before Omar’s first meeting there with Pearl, was, for me, one of the signs that the Akbar is linked with the ISI, it’s Mr. Dalrymple who makes two major mistakes.

First, Lone was the head not of “Hurriyat” but of the “All Parties Hurriyat Conference,” which is not a party but a confederation of extremely diverse parties.

Second, a central member of the confederation is the Jamaat-e-Islami of Jammu and Kashmir, which has set up a memorial trust to collect donations from abroad to finance the Holy War, which is why I rightly place the Hurriyat Conference in the ranks of the “Islamist NGOs.”

All this is not just quibbling over ideas, nor a simple quarrel between pedants, but it is of real men and women, the flesh and blood of Pakistani suffering, that we speak—the “half dead,” the “living damned,” whose evocation makes Mr. Dalrymple smile and whom we encounter, it’s true, less in the VIP lounges of airports than in the more miserable quarters of “glamorous” Karachi.

How does one best defend the interests of this “other Pakistan”: by multiplying the intellectual contortions meant to prove that Pakistan’s military-mullah complex is not implicated in the kidnapping of journalists such as Najam Sethi, Hussain Haqqani, Ghulam Hasnain, and Daniel Pearl? Or by speaking clearly, and by taking a clear position in favor of those who, like them, fight for free and truthful journalism in Islamabad and Karachi?

Who insults the memory of Daniel Pearl: a book critic who dares to offer the insane notion that the country where Pearl was beheaded is a country friendly to journalists, or someone who undertook a year-long, step-by-step investigation of this atrocious murder and the network that perpetrated it? A book critic who, reaching the end of a long series of errors, gives, without the slightest critical counterpoint, the same version of Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping given by former ISI head and well-known al-Qaeda sympathizer Ahmid Gul—or a writer who, in the game of masks and shadows which are Pakistani politics, has decided, once and for all, to distrust all official stories?

Bernard-Henri Lévy
Paris, France

William Dalrymple replies:

Bernard-Henri Lévy’s reply to my review exhibits exactly the same mix of errors, prejudice, and lack of precision that so flaws his book. To give just one especially glaring example, in his book, BHL argues that Hussain Haqqani and Najam Sethi were “kidnapped in Pakistan by ISI agents suspected of being backed up by al-Qaeda.” Here he makes a different claim, that they were victims of “Pakistan’s military-mullah complex.” In actual fact, as Najam Sethi has personally confirmed to me, he and Hussain were kidnapped neither by al-Qaeda, nor by the ISI, nor by the military, nor by the mullahs, but instead by the regular Punjab police acting on the orders of Pakistan’s last democratic prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Indeed the ISI actually intervened in the case of Sethi to have him released, leaving Sethi in the odd position, as he told the BBC at the time, in which “the good guys—a democratically elected prime minister—had had me arrested and wanted me court martialed by the khakis, which the bad guys—the ISI and army—politely refused to do.” No amount of rhetoric on the part of BHL will change this fact.

BHL’s inaccuracy is also evident when he accuses me of misquoting him, saying that I have him call “Pakistan the ‘house of the Devil,’” claiming he uses this epithet exclusively of a religious seminary. In my review, however, I actually quote him defining Pakistan as a whole as “the Devil’s own home” (in his foreword on page xix); he then goes on, four lines later, to continue to use Satanic imagery about Pakistan, writing of it as a “silent hell, full of the living damned.” Similar disdainful and unpleasant remarks about Pakistan and ordinary Pakistanis pepper the text throughout.

When writing about the Islamic world, and especially about jihadi groups, where so much inaccurate information is flying about, calmly uncovering the facts, checking them, and sticking to them are vitally important—as Daniel Pearl knew very well. The issue of the financing of September 11 is a case in point. Many conspiracy theories are in play, some of them originating from very dubious sources. The theory that Omar Sheikh was the financier of the operation, and that he was sending money to Mohamed Atta from the Pakistani Secret Service, appears to have been a bit of disinformation that probably originated from briefings given by the ISI’s direct rivals, Indian intelligence—the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW. It is not a theory that authorities on al-Qaeda, such as Peter Bergen, have taken seriously, especially since the principal financier of September 11 has now been established: a Saudi national named Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi. In the hundreds of pages on September 11 in the report issued jointly by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, Omar Sheikh is never named.

Omar Sheikh’s visit to the Balkans, its importance in radicalizing him, and his period working with the Kashmiri jihadi group Harkat ul-Mujahedin were recently confirmed beyond doubt by the London Observer‘s respected South Asian correspondent, Jason Burke, following a series of interviews with jihadis across Pakistan and Afghanistan. Burke, who, unlike BHL, speaks fluent Urdu, and who has spent many years covering South Asian conflicts, has published his findings in his brilliant book, Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, where readers will find a short but carefully researched biography of the man who organized Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping—a picture which differs in many important respects from that given in Lévy’s account.

As for the conflict in Kashmir, which I have covered since the beginning of the uprising in November 1989, and where I came within inches of losing my life doing so, I have to say that I take exception to being lectured on the subject by a writer who has never been there. The Hurriyat is the accepted abbreviation for the All Party Hurriyat Conference and is used in all South Asian papers. Abdul Ghani Lone, its most prominent leader, was always the principal moderate voice in Kashmir. He was one of the first to stand up to the corrupt and nepotistic government of Sheikh Abdullah. While he supported separation from India, as do most Kashmiris, he was always in favor of dialogue, never condoned terrorism, and was opposed to Kashmir becoming part of Pakistan. He repeatedly asked Islamabad to keep out of Kashmir, and spoke out loudly against the use of foreign fighters. By the end of his life he and the Hurriyat had moved close to accepting the “Autonomy Package” within the framework of the Indian constitution offered by the government of India, which is exactly why he was assassinated by ISI-backed Pakistani jihadis. He could not be further from the “notorious” ISI agent depicted by BHL. It is also a major error to call the Hurriyat an NGO when it is of course the principal political opposition in Kashmir.

Nor do I take kindly to BHL’s notion that I view Karachi from the luxury of a glitzy departure lounge. I have been writing about Pakistan and India for seventeen years, and in that time have reported extensively about war, slums, the abuse of women’s rights, honor killings, caste violence, corruption, and insurgencies. Nevertheless, slums and death are only one side of the picture in South Asia: to depict Karachi as “a black hole” (as Lévy calls it), a place only of darkness and suffering, is to ignore that it can also be a city of beauty and, in places, prosperity. For many Pakistanis, Karachi is a city of bright lights, where they can escape from the constrictions of conservative small-town life.

Finally, it is true that the final page and a half of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is marginally less hostile to Islam than the rest of the book, and that in it BHL visits a mosque where for “the first time I enter a religious space in Karachi without feeling the wind of imprecation, of hatred.” BHL says that this brought to mind good Muslim acquaintances such as the late President Izetbegovich of Bosnia and the Afghan Mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. Coming, however, after over four hundred pages of invective against Pakistan and ordinary Pakistanis, this coda reads suspiciously like the traditional disclaimer, “Of course some of my best friends….”

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