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Pak cleric sees quake as God’s punishment

Garhi Habibullah (Pakistan), Oct. 21: The black wires running through the ruins in this mountain town struck a local Muslim cleric as a message from God.

The wires had delivered cable television to about 300 homes and businesses in the town, which was devastated by the October 8 earthquake.

Imam Shafqat ur-Rehman is convinced that the natural disaster was God’s punishment for people viewing too much cable smut.

“Cable TV is a source of vulgarity and obscenity,” said the imam, who heads a local madarsa. “There are various programmes on cable that a true Muslim just cannot watch.

“I do not know the exact names because I haven’t viewed them myself,” the cleric added. “I have no interest in such things. But my friends tell me they have seen them at roadside hotels and such. They show men and women hugging each other. They also kiss one another. And there are nude pictures.”

For four years, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has tried to lead this Muslim majority country of 162 million people away from religious extremism and down a path of what he calls “enlightened moderation”.

His success is crucial to winning the battle of ideas at the heart of the US-declared war on terrorism. The magnitude 7.6 quake dealt a blow to his efforts by giving renewed strength to extremists.

In parts of the quake zone, survivors say Islamic militants, many of them veterans of the rebellion in Kashmir, were among the first people to rescue victims trapped in the rubble. It happened in Garhi Habibullah, Rehman said, because Pakistani soldiers didn’t arrive until later.

A bloc of hard-line Islamic parties forms the Opposition in the national parliament and governs the seriously damaged North-West Frontier Province, which includes this town. They have argued for years that the President is going too far in tying Pakistan to the West.

After the quake, many people lost all doubt that Musharraf’s approach was wrong. But, like the rest of Pakistan, Garhi Habibullah is divided over whether the quake, was an act of divine retribution.

Ihsan Nazeem, 17, doubts that God is against all television. TV sets, whether they’re used by poor or rich people, provide information,” said Nazeem, who survived the collapse of a boys’ high school. “It depends how you use it.”

This remote town, in the mountains about 100 miles north of Islamabad, the capital, first got cable seven months ago. Hundreds of subscribers signed up, despite an anti-cable campaign by the imam and his supporters.

Cable opponents were most upset about the English-language programmes beamed in by satellite to the distributor. The imam singled out HBO, which broadcast Hollywood movies and TV shows such as Sex and the City. Another popular cable channel here was Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV, which airs Desperate Housewives.

Rehman, a young man with a gaunt face and a long black beard, sees God’s selective hand in the pattern of the devastation. Houses that had cable connections were flattened, while others were not, he claimed.

The imam’s Arabia Islamia madarsa does not have TV sets. Photographing the human form is an insult to God, and, therefore, not condoned by Islam, he said.

But near the madarsa, the local cable company had run wires past a wall, which collapsed in the quake while the school escaped damage. None of the 150 students were harmed, whereas several hundred students in the town’s government schools were crushed to death.

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