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The idea of an 'Islamic bomb' is not new. Extremists would love one.

July 10, 2005|Pervez Hoodbhoy | Pervez Hoodbhoy is a member of the Pugwash Council and is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.

One wonders what Osama bin Laden and his ilk learned from Hiroshima.

The decision to incinerate the Japanese city and another, Nagasaki, was not taken in anger. White men in gray business suits and military uniforms, after much deliberation, decided that the United States could not give the Japanese any warning, that although it could not concentrate on a civilian area, it should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many inhabitants as possible. They argued that it would be cheaper in American lives to release the nuclear genie.

Crowds gathered in Times Square to celebrate: There were fewer of the enemy left. Rarely are victors encumbered by remorse. Declared President Truman: "When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true."

Not surprisingly, six decades later, even U.S. liberals remain ambivalent on the morality of nuking the two Japanese cities. But terrorists are not ambivalent.

The New York Times reported that before the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States had intercepted an Al Qaeda message that Bin Laden was planning a "Hiroshima" against America. In a later taped message, released before the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, Bin Laden said, "When people at the ends of the Earth, Japan, were killed by their hundreds of thousands, young and old, it was not considered a war crime; it is something that has justification."

In a recent televised debate between myself and Hameed Gul -- an influential Islamist leader, retired general and former head of Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency -- my opponent snarled at me: "Your masters [the Americans] will nuke us Muslims just as they nuked Hiroshima. People like you want to denuclearize and disarm us in the face of a savage beast set to devour the world."

Gul then vented his anger at those -- like myself -- who opposed Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. He sees us as agents of America, apostates and enemies of Islam and the Pakistani state.

This extremist general was making a point that resonates around the globe. The United States has bombed more than a dozen countries since 1948, and recently killed tens of thousands on the pretext of chasing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It claims to be a force for democracy and the rule of law despite a long history of supporting the bloodiest of dictators, rejecting the International Criminal Court and continuing to develop nuclear weapons.

But the nuclear monopoly is breaking down. The making of atomic weapons -- especially crude ones -- has become vastly simpler than at the time of the Manhattan Project. Basic information is freely available in technical libraries throughout the world, and surfing the Internet can bring anyone a staggering amount of detail.

Advanced textbooks and monographs contain details that can enable reasonably competent scientists and engineers to come up with "quick and dirty" designs for nuclear explosives. The physics of nuclear explosions can be readily taught to graduate students.

By stealing fissile materials in the thousands of former Soviet bombs marked for disassembly, or even a fraction of the vast amounts of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium in research reactors and storage sites the world over, it is unnecessary to go through complex processes for uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing.

Anger in Muslim countries at the United States has never been higher. The desire for an atomic weapon to seek vengeance -- utterly immoral, foolish and suicidal though it be -- is becoming ever more popular.

The notion of an "Islamic bomb" existed long before Sept. 11. Addressing posterity from his death cell in a Rawalpindi jail, where he would be hanged two years later, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear program, wrote in 1977: "We know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability. The Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilizations have this capability. The communist powers also possess it. Only the Islamic civilization was without it, but that position was about to change."

Addressing an Islamic conference in Tehran in 1992, the Iranian vice president, Sayed Ayatollah Mohajerani, said, "Since Israel continues to possess nuclear weapons, we, the Muslims, must cooperate to produce an atomic bomb, regardless of U.N. efforts to prevent proliferation."

In the celebrations following Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests, the decades-old religious party Jamaat-e-Islami paraded bomb and missile replicas through the streets of Pakistani cities. It saw in the bomb a sure sign of a reversal of fortunes and a panacea for the ills that have plagued Muslims since the end of the Golden Age of Islam. In 2000, I captured on video the statements of leaders of jihadist, right-wing political parties in Pakistan who also demanded a bomb for Islam.

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