Makkah and Mina: The View From Above




Note: This article has just appeared in the prestigious Haj & Umra Magazine (April 2007 edition) brought out by the Ministry of Haj. The glossy and well-edited magazine is not available online but is mailed every month to a select group of subscribers worldwide. All pictures posted above are mine and my copyright. — Siraj Wahab, March 27, 2007


'It Is Like Performing Tawaf From the Sky'

By Siraj Wahab

MAKKAH, January 1, 2007 — Covering the Haj is no easy task. Ask any print or broadcast journalist and he or she will tell you about it being the most challenging assignment. I covered Haj for the Jeddah-based English daily Arab News on nearly six occasions. I have been on foot, bus, truck and bike, but Haj 1427 was extraordinary in that I had my first look at the holy city of Makkah and the tent city of Mina from overhead. Thanks to a friendly lift from a Civil Defense helicopter, all the improvements at the holy sites were laid out before my eyes in panoramic detail.

Down in Mina, the streets were packed with pilgrims rushing to and fro. Everywhere one looked, it was a colorful sea of people. Mina is a small city and as far as your eye can see, tents cover every open space. They have been neatly arranged, row after row. The entrances to many of the tents are decorated with banners and garlands. This helps pilgrims identify their temporary residences from among so many that otherwise look the same. Huge balloons hang in the sky over certain locations to help pilgrims find their tents.

From the pictures appearing in newspapers, magazines and on television everyone gets the impression that the Haj is a sea of white, but being on the ground with the pilgrims it is amazing how colorful it is. Each national group is carrying a flag. Many of the pilgrims have signs or some sort of design pinned to their clothing to help them identify each other. They have prayer rugs over their arms and bags clutched in their hands. Even the pilgrims’ faces are colorful. Every shade of human skin is represented. Among the two million pilgrims are the tall, majestic Afghans with flowing beards, bushy eyebrows and aquiline noses; the lanky Somalis with their graceful gait; the helpful Sudanese, with smiles playing on their faces at all times; the loquacious Egyptians with goatees; the fair-skinned Iranians always walking in one large group; the young Pakistanis with their trademark mustaches and the ubiquitous Indians talking away in their regional languages.

The sheer numbers of pilgrims in Mina overwhelm everything in their path. They engulf the motorized vehicles and march up and around the Jamrat Bridge. They are an oncoming force on all routes to Makkah. Traffic police and security personnel must shout at top volume to be heard over the hubbub of the crowds. For the officers, directing the human traffic in the area is a physically demanding task. “Please don’t push,” the officers beg. “Please keep moving,” they implore. “Please be careful,” the officers urge. The pilgrims, caught up in their own immediate surroundings, too often don’t understand why the officers are so unwilling to let them sit down on the pavement or why the police refuse to allow them to turn against the flow on certain streets.

It is a pity that every pilgrim coming to Haj could not be given a bird’s-eye view of the area. So they don’t have a sense of the staggering security and logistics nightmare that the authorities are trying to keep under control. The helicopters circling the holy sites from above are constantly reporting to the ground commanders about areas of congestion at the holy sites.

Security forces manning the massive bridge are immediately alerted to the problems and move in to remedy the situation, perhaps by restricting the flow of pilgrims or vehicles to the area, or clearing out squatters and their luggage or directing sidewalk vendors to less obstructed locations.

In the past, sometimes I would get very nervous with the security personnel at Haj. Their instructions could seem pointless and inconvenient. Then, I had the opportunity to join 19 other journalists in a Civil Defense helicopter tour of the holy sites. Packed into the passenger benches of two massive choppers, we clamped earmuffs to our heads to drown out the rotor and engine noise and hung on to overhead straps for dear life.

It took just a few minutes for us to realize that the experienced Saudi pilots were taking us on a slow gentle ride, designed to allow us to view the area, snap our photos and keep our wits about us. One door of the helicopter was open from the top, enabling everyone to take turns putting camera lenses out for a clear unobstructed capture of the scene below.

From above, the pilgrimage looks very different. The hubbub is gone and the scene below is white, black and shades of gray. At Mina, the tents stretch out in waves with Al-Kuwaiti Mosque floating in the center of the swells. King Abdul Aziz Bridge is a slash through tent city.

The Jamrat area has undergone the greatest transformation. So much has been written about the new Jamrat Bridge that I didn’t expect to be surprised by the sight of it. But surprised I was. The new bridge is huge and already two levels -- ground and first level -- have been completed. There is an air-conditioned basement as well. The basement is actually a highway that allows the transport of aged and infirm pilgrims directly to Mina and can also be used for the movement of ambulances and emergency vehicles.

Television stations broadcasting from the area showed cranes and heavy equipment in the Jamrat Bridge area, so many people thought the bridge was not ready for the pilgrims. That was not true. After Haj this year, more levels will be added to the bridge and other improvements made, but the bridge in its current condition greatly facilitated this year’s pilgrimage.

From above, the pilgrims are mere dots creeping slowly up, down and around the bridge. They cluster tightly around the three Jamrat, which are walls jutting up from the bridge’s surface. As the pilgrims come forward on the bridge they pass the first wall, Jamrat Al-Ula, then they pass the second wall, Jamrat Al-Wusta, and finally there is Jamrat Al-Aqaba. Then the pilgrims move off through several different lanes and away from the bridge.

We flew over the hills that surround Mina, with the highway to Makkah a black snake, pushing through the tunnels in the mountains beneath the helicopter. The road was remarkably unobstructed and traffic was moving well toward Makkah. Our group included journalists from all over the world, both men and women, including Ms. Arifa Akbar, a news reporter with UK’s The Independent newspaper, Saudi photographers Ms. Susan Baaghil and Mr. Ahmad Al-Ammar and TV producer Mr. Azlan Bin Asri from Singapore’s Channel News Asia.

Suddenly there was a collective gasp. The Holy Haram came into view dead ahead. Cameras began snapping and telephoto lenses were set long to get the closest shot.

“I can’t believe this. This is just superb and fantastic,” gushed Ms. Susan Baaghil excitedly. “It is like performing tawaf (circumambulation) from the sky,” she said. “I have taken pictures of many subjects in the past but the pictures in here are among my most prized possessions,” she said tapping at her high-tech camera.

Mr. Ahmad Al-Ammar was equally delighted. “Before boarding the helicopter I had no idea what I was going to see. But what I saw from up above was fascinating. All our lives we have been praying in the direction of Kaaba and here was Kaaba in all its glory shimmering in the glow of a setting sun. It was just amazing. I kept clicking as the helicopter circled the holy city,” he said.

Once the requisite images were in hand, everyone needed a photo of himself or herself with the pilgrims performing tawaf in the background. As the earmuffs cut out all sound, communication was by means of hand signals, with all the journalists shifting left and right to enable everyone to have an equal chance to take photographs and get a direct look at the majestic scene below.

The helicopter tour has given me a new appreciation for the efforts of the authorities. Hearing that nearly three million pilgrims came for Haj is one thing. Casting eyes on those millions from above provides a different perspective on the event and what is required to bring it to a successful conclusion.

Interview With Bosnia’s Grand Mufti Dr. Mustafa Ceric

‘Muslims Should Use the Force of Argument’

JEDDAH, June 20, 2006 — Perhaps Bosnia is the most frightening manifestation of Europe’s Islamophobia in recent times. The wars between the portions of the former Yugoslavia raged in the 1990s and, at one point, Muslims became the target of ethnic cleansing. It would be easy to imagine radicalized Muslim leaders emerging from that era but Bosnia’s Grand Mufti Dr. Mustafa Ceric is the exact opposite.

Instead of calls for revenge, he calls for dialogue. Instead of sanction for acts of terror, he calls for the most severe condemnation of them. In short, Dr. Ceric is a leader committed to restoring respect for Islam through mutual tolerance and understanding.

When interviewed by Siraj Wahab at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Sharm El-Sheikh (May 2006), Dr. Ceric wore a Western suit and bore a striking resemblance to the American author, Ernest Hemingway. He feels that compromise with the West and the complete abandonment of violence perpetrated in the name of God is the only way for Islam to move forward if it is to survive in the age of globalization.

“European Muslims must take the issue of violence in the name of Islam very seriously, not because some people hate Islam and Muslims, but because the act of violence, the act of terror, the act of hatred in the name of Islam is wrong,” Dr. Ceric said. “It is against Muslim beliefs, and it is against Muslim interests in the world, especially in Europe.”

He said it was time for Muslims to remember the meaning of the word Islam. “They must fully and unequivocally proclaim to the whole world the nonviolent nature of their faith and teach their children that the right way to success in this world and to salvation in the Hereafter is not through argument by force, but through the force of peaceful argument.”

The Bosnian grand mufti also noted that Europe’s Muslims are among the most enlightened in the world. “Europe is a good place for Muslims themselves to discover the power and beauty of the universality of Islam,” Dr. Ceric said. “Muslims should be honest and confess that it is in Europe that many of them have discovered Islam in a totally different way from what they knew in their homelands. This is because in Europe when they meet their fellow Muslims from other parts of the Muslim world, they thus begin to appreciate the diversity of the Islamic experience and culture.”

Dr. Ceric is disappointed by the lack of reality in the approaches of many Muslim nations to a new era of globalization. “They are in general unable to live in a global world. Muslims have no global strategy; they have no global mind or mentality,” Dr. Ceric said. “They don’t even have a global calendar to save them from an embarrassing confusion about the dates of Eid Al-Adha. Above all, and most unfortunately, they have the image of threatening the freedom and security of the world; they bear the stigma of global terrorists.”

According to him, the idea of global awareness should not be strange to Muslims. “In essence, Islam is a universal faith and a global phenomenon. It would have been fully appropriate if Muslims had come with an agenda of globalization in terms of global freedom and security because Muslims are scattered almost everywhere on the globe, so their freedom and security are of global importance,” Dr. Ceric said.

Last year, the Bosnian grand mufti presented a widely discussed Declaration of European Muslims to the European Union stating that people of different religions could live side by side in harmony. “The declaration contains a clear message that European Muslims are fully and unequivocally committed to the rule of law, to the principles of tolerance, to the values of democracy and human rights, and to the belief that each and every human being has the right to five essential values: the value of life, the value of faith, the value of freedom, the value of property and the value of dignity.”

The Bosnian grand mufti said that many of the problems Muslims have in Europe are the result of a fundamental lack of understanding about Europe and the concepts of tolerance and coexistence with people of many faiths.

“Europe is neither ‘Darul Islam’ (a house of peace) nor ‘Darul Harb’ (a house of war). Europe is ‘Darul Sulh’ (the house of social contract). Europe is not ‘Darul Islam’ because Muslims do not constitute the majority and thus Muslim law cannot be fully implemented. Europe is not ‘Darul Harb’ either because some aspects of Muslim law can be implemented. The land of Europe is ‘Darul Sulh’ because it is possible to live in accordance with Islam in the context of the social contract.”

The most distressing point, however, is that a minority of intolerant Europeans, who want to restrict the rights of Muslims, is given fuel by a minority of Muslim extremists. The result is the destruction of the middle ground and the rights of both peoples to live in peace with one another.

“Some people in the West believe that the dialogue between Islam and the West is a waste of time; therefore, the only way for the West to deal with Islam and Muslims is the argument of force, not the force of argument,” Dr. Ceric said. “On the other hand, there are people in the East who believe that the West is an old enemy of Islam and so the Muslims should fight the West. They believe that there cannot be any dialogue between Islam and the West. According to their logic, there can be only dialectical opposition between the two.”

The grand mufti, well-versed in both Occidental and Oriental perspectives and who also knows of the horrible consequences for humanity when man tries to resolve differences with rifles rather than reason, stands for what people of all faiths and all nations need to ponder if they genuinely seek a future of peaceful coexistence.

“For a long time now, Islam has been in focus, both in the East and in the West. In the East, Islam is a center of attraction and in the West, it is a center of attention,” Dr. Ceric said. “The East believes that Islam is the solution whereas the West thinks that Islam is the problem. In the East, people claim to defend Islam against its enemies, whereas in the West, people believe that Islam is threatening their way of life. Hence, Islam has become a magic word for the East in the face of the West; and it has become a big puzzle for the West in the face of the East. It is one of the biggest challenges of our times to comprehend the magic word from the East and to appreciate the puzzle faced by the West.”

Interview With OIC Secretary-General Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu

‘What Is Taking Place in Iraq Is Very Heartbreaking’

JEDDAH, December 6, 2006 — Sixty-three-year-old Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Founded in 1969, the OIC is the world’s largest organization of Muslim countries and now represents 57 nations. Its mandate is to increase political, economic and social cooperation among Muslim nations. Since its establishment in September 1969 after the burning of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, it has been the butt of jokes in the Muslim and Arab street because, although a useful forum for discussion, it is seen as lacking the means to implement its resolutions.

Professor Ihsanoglu has given the OIC a new direction in the two years that he has been its head. A Turkish national, he is a historian and a scholar who speaks both Arabic and English. His facility with Arabic has helped him play a key part in negotiations on Middle Eastern issues. He also has a working knowledge of French and Persian. He has written numerous books, articles and papers on science, Islamic culture, Turkish culture, relations between the Muslim world and the Western world and Turkish-Arab relations.

Professor Ihsanoglu is media savvy. He loves fielding questions and is a treat at press conferences. He is articulate and suave and his select group of political aides is always more than willing to provide essential quotes to breaking stories which affect the Muslim world. The secretary-general understands the challenges that he faces. Prominently displayed on his desk is a neatly framed political cartoon taking a dig at the OIC. The cartoon features a turtle on its back; it is being helped to its feet by a number of people. The turtle of course represents the OIC and, “one of the men is me,” chuckled Professor Ihsanoglu. He would not be drawn on what he has accomplished at the OIC, but all realize that in the last two years he has managed to put the organization back on its feet through a series of initiatives. Some of them are the historic Extraordinary Islamic Summit in Makkah and the bringing together of the religious leaders from Iraq in Saudi Arabia to sign a reconciliation document.

In an exclusive interview with Siraj Wahab at the OIC headquarters in Jeddah on Dec. 5, 2006, Professor Ihsanoglu talked at length about the crises in the Middle East and his views. Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Jordan’s King Abdallah recently said that the Middle East is facing three civil wars — in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. What is the OIC going to do or is doing about the current state of affairs?

A: I don’t think they are civil wars. I see them as big problems. What is going on in Palestine is not a civil war. It is a war against aggression and against occupation; it is the struggle of a people against occupiers and a struggle of those people to get their legitimate rights and their own independent state. It is the struggle of a people to live with honor and dignity in a way they are entitled to. What is going on in Lebanon is really a very sad story. The political leadership there should do more. They should have more dialogue, more understanding and the political wisdom to go through constitutional means rather than confrontational means. During the Israeli war last July, the Lebanese proved that they are a coherent society. The country’s leadership showed great wisdom. We expect them to show the same wisdom now. As for Iraq, it looks as if the situation were out of control. We, in the OIC, tried hard and we are still trying hard to contribute to the solution of the crisis. It is really sad. There is the danger of a civil war. No doubt. I don’t want to say that it is civil war but I think that it is very near to that. The situation is being aggravated every day. We hope that reason and wisdom will prevail. The narrow-minded political interests or political supremacy of one party over another will not continue in the same way. Because if it does, it will end with what we are all afraid of. This would not be in the interest of anybody or any side or any component within Iraqi society or any country outside Iraq.

Q: You think the three issues are inter-related?

A: Yes. Of course all three issues are related to each other because all three issues are the outcome of external influences. That has been the unfortunate fate of the Middle East since the beginning of World War I.

Q: What is your top priority: Iraq, Palestine or Lebanon?

A: Well, logically speaking, the Palestinian issue is at the root of Middle Eastern instability and conflict. We cannot think of the Lebanese issue without thinking of the Palestinian issue. What is happening in Iraq is also related to the stability of the region.

Q: You said you still would not call what is going on in Iraq a civil war. As an academic and as a historian, can you please define civil war?

A: I don’t want to indulge in semantics here. I don’t want to go for academic definitions. What is taking place in Iraq is very serious, very heartbreaking and we all feel sad. We don’t want to call it civil war because that would be an attempt to close our eyes to the sad reality of the killings every day. We want to call everybody to acknowledge the true way, the wise way of solving the problem. If we accept it as a civil war, we are closing our eyes to a political solution, a negotiable solution and a peaceful solution. That is why we leave the definition, semantics aside, and we try our best to deal with the situation there. Defining or characterizing the situation is not a solution to the problem. We know what is going on there and that is why we are worried. Very worried.

Q: You brought prominent Sunni and Shiite scholars to Makkah and got them to agree to a reconciliation agreement. Then they went home and the sectarian killings continued. It must be quite frustrating for you. Do you see a real Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq or do you think the occupation is creating these problems?

A: The main purpose of the OIC initiative, as it materialized very successfully in the Makkah Document, was to identify one of Iraq’s very complex problems. By doing so, by getting 15 scholars from each side to agree on the 10-point reconciliation declaration and by getting their complete approval and then the consensus of all the top Sunni and Shiite religious leaders such as (Ali) Sistani and (Abdul Aziz) Al-Hakim and (Harith) Al-Dhari and others, we saw that the real problem is not religious or one of “madhab.” (I am not using the English word “sect” for “madhab.” It is usually translated in English as sect but by “madhab” here, I mean the school of jurisprudence.) So it is not the difference of jurisprudence that is motivating these people. It is not a religious fight per se. That was a major step in identifying and understanding the problem. Nobody inside or outside Iraq can now say or claim that this is a “religious” fight or that it is based on a “madhab.” The leaders of the two “madhahib” agree on this point. And according to all of us, there is nothing which justifies the killings. The religious leaders say they have asked their people not to kill each other and they have made it clear that whoever does so is not a Muslim. That was the major contribution of the Makkah conference. Now, is that all we aimed for in Makkah? No, we aimed for the religious leaders to ask their people to follow the provisions of this document because these are religious commands. Actually this began to happen, but in the end, political factors and political struggles overcame everybody. Now we must intensify our efforts. And we are trying to bring people back to the spirit of the Makkah Document. Of course, this is no one-dimensional solution because it is not a one-dimensional problem. The crisis is very complicated but we all have to try our best.

Q: There has been a suggestion for an international conference on Iraq. The idea has already been rejected by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim. What is your opinion?

A: Well, my personal view is that there is a need for such a conference. Already there exists a mechanism for a conference. It was in place well before the occupation of Iraq. All countries neighboring Iraq should be involved in the solution of the Iraq problem. We have to admit that without the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbors and without the cooperation of some international powers, we cannot reach a comprehensive and peaceful solution in Iraq. The crisis will be prolonged. The suffering of the Iraqi people will be prolonged. Every day you have hundreds of people being killed, the militias are doing as they wish — kidnapping people, slaughtering people, torturing people and all of this is meaningless. We have to get the Iraqi people out of this cycle of killing. And this needs cooperation from within Iraq as well as from those outside Iraq. The only way to do this in my opinion is through international cooperation.

Q: Is the OIC in talks with the Iraqi leadership on the conference proposal?

A: No. Not on this but this is what we think would be one of the best ways. Other options have been exhausted.

Q: There is also talk of some kind of an international peacekeeping force composed of soldiers from countries that did not participate in the occupation. Is that viable?

A: Officially we have not received such a request from anybody. We know that one possible way of ending the occupation in Iraq is to have peacekeeping forces. The modalities of this option have not yet been thought through. But I am sure that some OIC countries would be interested in helping the Iraqis out of their difficulties. Of course, they would be countries which are acceptable to both the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people, as is the case in Lebanon now. But all this is early talk.

Q: Washington says that if it withdraws, there will be more bloodshed. Do you agree?

A: Well, if the American forces withdraw before Iraqi forces take over security and if the government is not in full command of all forces, and if security is left to the militias, I think there will be more bloodshed. We are not justifying the presence of any foreign forces there, but we have to look at it in a right context. The only aim should be safeguarding the people. And preventing the killings. If the killings are happening in the presence of all the foreign forces, I think if they leave, then it will become a civil war and then what we all are afraid of would happen. If civil war happens in Iraq, I don’t think it will stop in Iraq. Civil war would be an invitation for others to intervene. We should all be careful not to allow things to deteriorate to that extent.

Q: Meaning the US should not leave unless and until there is a mechanism in place to take over?

A: Of course, there should be an agreed-upon mechanism; otherwise one cannot imagine what could happen there. Nobody would have thought this would happen in Iraq. Never in the 14 centuries of Islamic history, let alone in the history of Iraq, has this ever happened. This is for the first time and, I, as a secretary-general and also as a scholar who knows the history of this region and religion, feel it is very difficult to understand why these things are happening.

Q: What is the OIC view on the US-Iran standoff?

A: We think that Iran has full rights to develop its nuclear capacities in a peaceful way in agreement with international conventions and covenants and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) protocols and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat (NPT). Every country has the same right. What we see in how the Iranian nuclear issue is treated is another manifestation of double standard. Of course, we are all against using nuclear power for military purposes. We believe that the Middle East should be a nuclear-free zone. We had a very good example in which a group of OIC countries — the Central Asian group composed of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan — all agreed to make Central Asia a nuclear-free zone. That was done recently and we are happy with the agreement and the experience. We commend them. And we hope the best solution to end this (Iran nuclear) controversy is not resorting to sanctions or doing this and doing that but to be honest. To have the same yardstick for everybody. We need to work to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. I think if we do that, it would be a solution for this problem and it would also be a prelude to many other solutions which would contribute to peace and security in the Middle East. If we make a breakthrough here, we can make a breakthrough in other areas too.

Q: Earlier the talk was that the road to peace in the Middle East began in Baghdad. This was the neocon and Zionist view, of course. Now there is talk of reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process. Would the OIC take the initiative to bring Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s peace plan to the forefront?

A: What happened in Baghdad unfortunately showed how wrong all those ideas were that were put forth as justification for operations in Iraq. Using power does not solve any problem. It aggravates and exacerbates them; it makes things worse, it makes them more complicated and leads to more bloodshed, more killing and more destruction. So what happened and what is happening in Baghdad should be a good lesson for those who would really like to contribute to peace and cooperation in the Middle East. I think King Abdullah’s peace initiative is an excellent point to start from. If we can make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone and then start peace talks based on King Abdullah’s plan, I think that would be two great steps to solving the problems in the Middle East. In the long run, such steps could turn the Middle East into a place of peace, security and prosperity as it was historically before the foreign interventions of the 20th century.

Pervez Musharraf’s Autobiography: A Fuzzy Line Between Fact & Fiction

JEDDAH, October 23, 2006 — Pervez Musharraf is a daring storyteller, and he tells many stories in his much-discussed, well-crafted and highly controversial memoir, "In the Line of Fire." The challenge for the reader, however, is to separate fact from fiction in his account of events that initially led to his coup and then to his complete consolidation of power in Pakistan.

Interestingly, at no place in his 352-page memoir does Musharraf call himself an absolute ruler — which is precisely what he is. He labels his seizure of power a “countercoup” instead of a coup. The dust jacket proclaims: “Musharraf became president in a dramatic confrontation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.” It was, however, a coup, plain and simple. An elected prime minister with an overwhelming majority in Parliament was removed at gunpoint.

Musharraf is apparently a man who cares little for the consequences of his writing. This may be because the people of Pakistan are not his political constituency. He derives his strength from his military constituency; he does not have to stand for election so he does not have to worry about his image. He makes full use of this fact to label anybody whatever he wishes.

It is slightly shocking but extremely bold for the head of a Muslim nation to write what he has written about his parents. “Both my parents loved music and dancing, especially ballroom dancing. My father was a very elegant, very graceful dancer. During the coronation of the queen of England, there was a dance competition in which many of our embassy people (in Turkey) participated and my parents won first prize for ballroom dancing.” Westerners might rightly say: What’s the big deal?

Musharraf elaborates on his romances, first with the girl next door and then with a beautiful Bengali girl who, he writes, is now happily married and lives in Bangladesh. “I went so far as to get my Nani Amma, my maternal grandmother, into the act (of delivering love letters) without her realizing it. She was a lovely woman who wore a burka as conservative Muslim women do. I would tell her that she must visit the neighbors and then direct her to the girl’s house as an unwitting courier with a romantic letter in her pocket.”

Musharraf describes Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as a fascist. “He ruled like a despotic dictator. He was really a fascist — using the most progressive rhetoric to promote regressive ends, the first of which was to stay in power forever.” Musharraf has completed seven years in power and nothing moves without his nod; the government, though technically elected, remains completely under his control.

Perhaps the most disturbing chapter in the book is the one that deals with Musharraf’s overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Nawaz Sharif. The common perception thus far has been that the entire army was behind the coup. If one goes by Musharraf’s own account, however, that is not the case. The leaders behind the coup, as it turns out, were loyal Musharraf supporters.

“Consider the cast of (coup) actors and their relationship to me,” writes Musharraf. “Apart from being their chief, I played squash with the two commanding officers, Shahid Ali and Javed Sultan. Mohammad Aziz Khan was my appointee. The commander of the Rawalpindi Corps, Mahmood Ahmed, had been my regimental commanding officer when I was in charge of an artillery brigade in 1986-1987. The DGMO (director general of military operations), Shahid Aziz, is my relative. The commander of the Triple One Brigade, Brig. Sallahuddin Satti, was my brigade major when I was brigadier. The officers critical to the countercoup in other cities, Lahore and Karachi, were also my appointees. Only the head of our premier security service, the ISI, Lt. Gen. Ziauddin, was close to Sharif. The deck was stacked against the prime minister.”

The way Sharif was arrested will remain one of the dark chapters in Pakistan’s history. In democracies the world over, elected representatives are removed by ballot — not by bullet or the threat of bullet. Musharraf’s men acted because they were angry that Sharif was concentrating power in himself and because he had dared to remove Musharraf from his post as army chief. Sharif had named Lt. Gen. Ziauddin as the next army chief but Musharraf’s men feared the worst after their friend’s removal. Thus, they made sure the removal never took effect.

Musharraf asserts that the Kargil operations were a landmark in the history of the Pakistan Army. “As few as five battalions, in support of the freedom fighter groups, were able to compel the Indians to employ more than four divisions. I am ashamed to say, our political leadership insinuated that the achievements of our troops amounted to a debacle.”

According to the deposed political leadership, Pakistan suffered heavy casualties. And that led to uncomfortable questions for Musharraf which in turn led to differences between Sharif and Musharraf. In his book, Sharif claims that 2,700 Pakistani men died in the conflict, a number he claimed was “more than those martyred in the wars of 1965 and 1971.” Musharraf does not talk about Pakistani casualties at all, but he does mention the Indian ones. “The Indians, by their own admission, suffered over 600 killed and over 1,500 wounded. Our information suggests that the real numbers are at least twice what India has publicly admitted,” writes Musharraf. Whatever the figures, there can be no disagreement with Musharraf that Kargil led to a rethinking about Kashmir within the Indian establishment. For the first time since 1947, India was on the defensive.

In the book’s second half, Musharraf takes great pains to describe Pakistan’s role in the war on terror. He seems upset with certain elements in the US and the West which blame Pakistan for not doing enough. “Since shortly after 9/11, when many members of Al-Qaeda fled Afghanistan and crossed into Pakistan, we have played cat and mouse with them. The biggest prize of all, Osama Bin Laden, is still at large but we have caught many, many others. Those who accuse us of ‘not doing enough’ in the war on terror should simply ask the CIA how much prize money it has paid to the government of Pakistan.”

Musharraf provides some interesting insights into Al-Qaeda’s courier system. “As we went into the mountains of Waziristan and smashed Al-Qaeda’s communication network in Pakistan, we discovered that its courier system is very well-established. It is four-tiered, with distinct layers for administration, operations, media support and the top hierarchy.” The operational courier network deals with passing operational instructions. “Here, greater care is exercised in selecting couriers. The procedure ensures maximum security through a code-word and cutout system; that is, unwitting couriers are substituted for knowledgeable people wherever possible.” Musharraf states that the top Al-Qaeda leaders try not to pass written messages except when unavoidable. “Normally, the leaders make their best, most trusted, diehard couriers memorize messages and then convey them verbatim.”

The book also provides some interesting facts about Taleban chief Mullah Omar and his rise to power. According to Musharraf, Pakistan invited Omar several times after he gained power but he always refused. “We also offered to send him for Umrah, the small pilgrimage to Makkah, but he refused that, too. He always met delegations from our intelligence agency but never allowed any of his field commanders to interact with us; he said they were continuously involved in operations.”

Musharraf says dealing with Mullah Omar was like banging one’s head against the wall. “How do you negotiate with such a man? He was (and still is) caught in a time warp, detached from reality. We have two entirely opposite world views. Whereas I believe that one must exhaust every avenue to avoid war and the death and destruction it entails, Omar thinks that death and destruction are inconsequential details in a just war. People like Mullah Omar believe that worldly possessions, including life itself, are secondary to their principles and traditions. One of those traditions is the protection of anyone who has been designated a guest. Therein lay the difficulty.”

Musharraf confirms the story that the Taleban chief escaped on a Honda motorcycle in the first week of December 2001. He said he told the then Japanese prime minister that the best advertisement for Honda would be a campaign depicting Mullah Omar fleeing on one of its motorcycles.

There is no question of Mullah Omar’s being in Pakistan, writes Musharraf. “Ever since he came into the limelight in 1994, Mullah Omar has not once visited Pakistan. How could he now be comfortable in our country? Today, the Taleban strongholds are the southern provinces of Afghanistan. All rural areas and most cities there are under the influence of the Taleban. They also dominate most movement at night. Mullah Omar would find it most convenient and safe to live and hide with his followers in his own area.” Admittedly, this is very feasible.

Musharraf holds almost all political opponents in utter contempt and tries to discredit them by portraying them in the worst possible light. But the man he seems to hate the most is Dr. A.Q. Khan, “the father of the Islamic bomb.”

The issue of proliferation gives Musharraf the perfect stick to beat the nuclear scientist with. “A.Q. Khan was not, in fact, the sole scientist in charge of the entire (nuclear) effort, yet he had a great talent for self-promotion and publicity and led the public to believe that he was building the bomb almost single-handedly,” writes Musharraf.

He also describes his decision to send Dr. A.Q. Khan into retirement after it became clear he was actively fostering nuclear proliferation. “He had no further role to play in our weapons program. He was such a self-centered and abrasive man that he could not be a team player. He did not want anyone to excel beyond him or steal the limelight on any occasion or on any subject related to our strategic program. He had a huge ego, and he knew the art of playing to the gallery and manipulating the media.”

Any well-informed reader of the book will likely come away with the impression that the author is a man of contradictions — a man in uniform in favor of democracy who is certain that his vision for the future of Pakistan is not only the best but the only one possible. Perhaps the greatest coup here is the extent to which self-serving rationalization can become justifications for extremely controversial moves which unfortunately have their roots in militarism as opposed to democracy.

The autobiography is important — albeit one-sided — because it throws light on a number of issues. Musharraf supporters will enjoy the book as much as Musharraf detractors will dislike it — but the book is definitely worth reading if only to see how people in power become addicted to it.