L’ATOMICA DI ALLAH
Originally published in DIARIO, n. 34, 9 September 2005
“Vietnam, to my mind, offers the only viable model of resistance... Ho Chi Minh did not call for hijacking airliners or blowing up buses... By inviting media celebrities like Jane Fonda, Vietnam generated enormous goodwill. On the other hand, can you imagine the consequences of Vietnam's leadership being with Osama bin Laden rather than Ho Chi Minh? That country would surely have been a radioactive wasteland, rather than the unique victor against imperialism.”
He is one of the outstanding brains of Pakistan, Pervez Hoodbhoy. An eminent Pakistani physicist at the Quaid-e-Azam university, Islamabad, Pakistan, Hoodbhoy goes straightforward to the core of our conversation: “Anger in Muslim countries at the United States has never been higher than today: torture and prisoner abuse in Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo and instances of Quran desecration have added on to already existing resentments, most particularly the unequivocal US support for Israeli occupation of Arab lands. The desire for an atomic weapon to seek vengeance – utterly foolish and suicidical though it may be – is not limited to extremists. The Islamic Bomb is a popular concept, even more after 9/11”. The ‘Islamic Bomb’ – a nuclear weapon acquired for ideological reasons and supposedly belonging to the entire Muslim community, the Ummah – evokes the nightmare of Jihadists ready to press the button and make New York a radioactive ruin. But is it credible that the Ummah will build it?
Pakistan was the first Islamic nuclear power. And it still is the only one. But “contrary to popular belief in the West, Islamic solidarity was not a motive. The motive was entirely Indo-centric, as India had exploded its atomic bomb in 1974”, explains Hoodbhoy, while telling us that Pakistani people saw in the Bomb a panacea for the ills that have plagued Muslims since the end of the Golden Age of Islam, between the IX and the XIII centuries, when Islam was a rich, stable, rapidly expanding and most of all tolerant system. “But then that glorious past has vanished”, he continues, “And today Muslims number 1 billion, spread over 48 Muslim countries. None of these has yet evolved a stable democratic political system. Grossly unequal distribution of wealth in Muslim countries, suppression of fundamental human liberties, mistreatment of minorities and women have produced a nightmare”. The rationale behind the Pakistani nuclear programme is certainly the perennial conflict between Pakistan and India, but from time to time, the media reports the speculation that Pakistan would provide a “nuclear umbrella” for Arab countries in a crisis, for Islamic solidarity. Hoodbhoy is quite skeptical, however: “Nothing in the history of Pakistan has shown a substantial commitment to an Islamic cause. Pakistan is unlikely to risk devastating retaliation from Israel or the United States and its earlier clandestine nuclear cooperation with Iran – officially attributed to the antics of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan and his network – came to an end a decade ago”. But what mostly seems unlikely to him is the idea of a ‘collective bomb’. “Unity has never been a Muslim strong point”, he argues as he begins listing off a tangled mix of sects and groups and reminding me that today the friction between Shiites and Sunnis is as violent as ever. “Neither has the Serbian forces’ genocide inflicted upon Bosnian Muslims elicited a significant response from the Muslim community at large”, he says mentioning also the Palestinian situation: “The Palestinian-Israeli issue, with daily televised images of Palestinian suffering, is, by far, the single greatest element that rallies Muslims against the US. However, oil-rich Arab countries pay lip service to the Palestinian cause- which they regard as an Islamic cause-while investing their dollars in the United States”. Then he continues to speak about the Islamic Bomb: “In my opinion, that danger comes not from Muslim states, but from radicalised individuals within a state”. Indeed an understandable point of view: before using an atomic bomb every country has to seriously evaluate the possibility that it certainly will be subjected to retaliation, whereas retaliation can do very little with terrorist groups, as terrorists don’t have a territory or a population to protect. However, establishing a nuclear programme requires money, scientific expertise and industrial structures, which at least some decades ago only great powers could afford. Looking at the images of the two main characters of this “Century of Terror”, George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, what mostly surprises us is the difference between the two: Bush comes down from high-tech helicopters, whereas Bin Laden comes down from the mountains with a rod: he looks like a shepherd of 2,000 years ago. The scientific-technological gap between the Bush world and that of the mujahideen seems irretrievable, so irretrievable that we found ourselves asking whether it is sensible to believe that Bin Laden and his pals could be up to the level of building the atomic bomb.
The media often mistakes radiological weapons such as the so-called ‘dirty bomb’ and nuclear weapons, such as the atomic bomb. A dirty bomb is certainly a nasty weapon, but certainly not as powerful as an atomic bomb, which can annihilate hundreds of thousands of lives in a single blow. Building an atomic bomb with enriched uranium and the Gun method of detonation, that is a Hiroshima-like bomb – maybe a bit more primitive, but not so much less destructive – is within terrorists’ reach: they could assemble it in a garage of the target city and they can explode it using a timer, there is no need for a kamikaze. “Basic information is freely available in technical libraries throughout the world”, explains Hoodbhoy, “and the physics of nuclear explosions can be readily taught to graduate students”. So scientific expertise is not an unsolvable problem for terrorists, especially if one considers that fundamentalism gains ground not only among the poor and the uneducated, but also with technical élites. And after 9/11 a well-known Pakistani nuclear engineer, Sultan Mahmood, was arrested under the charge of having met Bin Laden and Mullah Omar.
He is a colourful character, Sultan Mahmood. And certainly full of resources...He is a strong supporter of the so-called ‘Islamic science’, which aims to put together science and the Quran. Fifteen years ago, he suggested solving the energy problems of Pakistan by extracting energy from genies: those in the bottle, I mean! He had got the idea from the Quran, according to which Allah created angels and genies from fire, thus these creatures have a sort of primeval energy. “I had a bitter public dispute with him over 15 years ago”, tells Hoodbhoy, “He was enraged at me for calling his Islamic theories on jinns and energy crackpot nonsense. However, he is not a crackpot, he is a skilled engineer. And this should make you understand what fundamentalism can do to the thinking of people”. Is Mahmood an exception? “Mahmood may be extreme, but there is bitter resentment against the US across the Muslim world. I often encounter skilled fanatics. Also many of my physics students are unwilling to think outside the box. They conjure up all kinds of conspiracy theories against Islam to the point where it is totally senseless. But in any case scientific expertise is not the main problem for a terrorist group who wants to make a bomb, the main problem is getting the fissile material to build it, that is enriched uranium and plutonium”. Indeed a serious problem, but maybe not a desperate one. In fact, it is well-known that following several treaties between Russia and America to reduce their nuclear arsenals, huge quantities of enriched uranium and plutonium have been accumulated in Russia and some of the Russian sites where that material has been stockpiled are vulnerable. It is quite incredible that in these years the world has continued to ignore this problem. Actually there are agreements between Russia and the United States in order to secure that material against thefts and from being used by terrorists. However, due to organisational problems and lack of funding, the entire process is very slow. “In the meantime, Missile Defence continues to soak up billions”, says Hoodbhoy, adding: “Some nuclear weapon experts privately believe that this is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ a city is blown up”.
Hoodbhoy closes our talk speaking about the ‘twin ogres’: American imperialism and fanatical Islam. “Americans must understand that their disdain for international law is creating enemies everywhere. In how many countries can US citizens safely walk the streets today? Unless there is a perception that there is some measure of justice in world affairs, terrorist groups will continue to recruit successfully: this trend is likely to be irreversible. However, Muslims too must confront bitter truths: they are not helpless victims of Western conspiracies. The causes of the decline of Islamic greatness were essentially internal and they must reflect and ask themselves what went wrong and realise that they need secular and democratic states that respect human dignity. The answer to their problems is not Bin Laden. The choice we have is between believing in a savage dog-eat-dog world, or daring to imagine a future that is based on universal, compassionate, human, secular values. For this to happen, the civilised world will have to subdue the twin ogres”.