Veteran journalist Fakhar Rehman reports from Pakistan's tribal areas. He believes many people in his homeland saw the U.S. reaction to 9/11 as an attack on Islam.
By Fakhar Rehman, NBC News
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — When I turned on my television at home on September 11, 2001, I was stunned to see passenger planes hitting symbols of America's financial and military strength.
My journalistic instincts kicked in and I contacted Sohail Shaheen, the Taliban Embassy spokesman in Islamabad. "Are you watching TV?" I asked him. His reply was, "No." I explained the breaking news that was unfolding on-air. He denied the Taliban were involved. I told him to get ready — the whole world would soon be focusing on Afghanistan. At the time, I did not realize that the focus would eventually turn to my own country of Pakistan.
Covering the "War on Terror" as a Pakistani journalist over the last decade, I've found myself in many unexpected situations. One week after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, I received a call from the Taliban to pick up my visa from their Embassy in Islamabad. Once there, I was told they were taking me to Jalalabad — immediately. I called my family, got on the bus with the Taliban and spent the next three days wearing the same clothes while interviewing Taliban members and reporting from Afghanistan. Thank God, I returned home safely.
As a Muslim, the 9/11 attacks pushed me to probe my own religion and try to offer assessments in the debate on Islam and extremism. I've always believed that no religion supports killing. Extremism has nothing to do with any religion; it's a reaction, an outburst of feelings for a person who passes through certain difficulties and sees no other way. But, like many Pakistanis and others around the world, I did consider the U.S. action after 9/11 to be too big. President George W. Bush's decision to call it a "crusade" led to a great divide in the Muslim world. The evil men who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks could then be called "warriors" in this "crusade," and not "criminals," as they should have been. People here saw the U.S. reaction as an attack on Islam.
Over the last 10 years, I've watched Pakistan became a divided nation. Everyone now has to define himself by where he falls on the line of extremist, liberal, or moderate. The country now looks like a war zone, with checkpoints and security barriers in all the main cities. Suicide attacks were an unknown phenomenon here — the first in years was the assassination attempt on President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003. Now they happen all the time.
Thousands of people have been killed here, children have been orphaned and entire families have been uprooted — insecurity has become the dominant feeling in the last 10 years. No-go zones, checkpoints, anti-terror courts — these are all everyday things in Pakistanis' lives. They never were before 9/11.
'This will be a long war'
There has been a loss of personal freedom. Never ever before were journalists regarded with suspicion but now I am regularly searched. My right to move and report freely has been curtailed but I see this profession as a way to continue fighting for those rights for all.
The U.S. was right to punish the 9/11 perpetrators but it laid the wrong foundation for its "crusade." As a result, Pakistani society has become more segmented, pushing Islamist and liberal political parties further apart. The Pakistan Army has to fight terrorists while trying to convince the masses it's not fighting a war against Islamists.
Ten years ago I met a Taliban fighter on that trip to Jalalabad and I asked him how they would face a war against America. "Our fighters have already moved into the mountains," he said. "This will be a long war and we are ready."
The fight is still on. But despite the changes I've seen in my own country, I still believe Pakistan will emerge a strong and stable nation.