If you believe the rumors that zip around Pakistan in the aftermath of one of the country's depressingly regular outbreaks of violence, it's all America's fault. Or India's. Or Israel's. Or it's those Afghan-based militia who keep sneaking across the border. Fueled by cheap cell phone calls and the rise of 24-hour television news channels, gossip about who is to blame for Pakistan's woes runs from the reasonable to the ridiculous.
In the 24 hours since a lone attacker assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the rumor mill has again been working overtime. In Karachi, amid reports of rioting and sabotage, stories circulated that the city's water supply had been poisoned and people were afraid to drink it. There were also the conflicting accounts of how Bhutto died from bullet wounds or from a bomb blast that followed or from fracturing her skull against her car's sun-roof as the assailant blew himself up. In the confusion of reports, many Pakistanis are pointing the finger of blame at President Pervez Musharraf and his allies in Washington.
There is no evidence to suggest that Musharraf or Pakistan's security forces were connected to the attack. On jihadi websites, al-Qaeda claimed the assassination was their work and intelligence officials in both Pakistan and the U.S. agree that Islamic extremists from al-Qaeda or the Taliban were probably responsible for the devastating attack. But as Musharraf's popularity has slipped badly, moderate and religious Pakistanis alike have begun to blame him for the increasing chaos in their country and to trace every incident directly to his rule and his high-profile allies. "This assassination was fabricated by the present government," says Liaqat Baloch, a senior official in Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan's main Islamic parties. "It is part of the American strategy to scare people that Pakistan is falling apart."
At a time when Pakistan does indeed seem to be falling apart, it may seem absurd and even pointless to repeat such allegations. But the sentiments provide a powerful insight into how angry Pakistanis are at their President and how mistrustful they are of the U.S. At the least, says retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the former director general of Pakistani intelligence organization Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), "it's very convenient for the security forces to call it a suicide bomber because they can cover up the possibility someone else was behind the attack." Gul, who has become a harsh critic of Musharraf over the past year, believes America is partly responsible for its current predicament. "If America continues to act selfishly and unwisely, well, there is hardly any good that has come out [of their help] either for the U.S. or Pakistan, and this will continue."
[As ISI chief, Gul helped run the Afghan mujahideen as a force to counter and eventually defeat the Soviet Union in the 1980s; later he helped establish the Taliban in Afghanistan. He also organized the guerrillas fighting the Indian army in the sections of Kashmir held by New Delhi.]
With such mistrust, rumors thrive. On the streets of Lahore Friday afternoon, many blamed Musharraf and the U.S. rather than Islamic extremists for Bhutto's demise. White-haired Mohamed Sharif, 61, who runs a sidewalk barber's shop using a rusty old metal table and a worn mirror, says the "rumor is that America is involved in this with Musharraf's help." A passerby butts in with his agreement: "America and the government are in the same direction, they are allies," says Sabir Hussain. "If the government is doing this it is on the order of America."
Lahore is a stronghold of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and is home to plenty of Bhutto supporters as well. In a place that's so heavily anti-Musharraf, innuendo seems to feed on itself. On the city's main street, lined with policemen holding batons and wearing anti-riot gear, two teenagers out for a walk say they have also heard about a possible government connection to the attack but cannot offer any evidence to back up the claims. "My mother told me not to talk about this topic on my mobile or telephone because the government may tape it," says Hafiz Jamshaid, 18, a computer science student at a local college.
Across town, in a park in the tony neighborhood known as Defense Housing Authority, or DFA, four business associates discussed Pakistan's future after their regular afternoon walk. "People are afraid to air their opinions but as far as I know America sent Benazir and later killed her with the help of Pervez Musharraf," says M.A. Mohamed, who runs a car parts company. "I can confirm this idea." His friend and colleague Talat Mumtaz interjects: "No, no. no, America likes Benazir. Why would they kill her? You're being ridiculous."
"No one knows what are the facts," complains Constable Jafar Hamid, proudly showing off his English as he guards a McDonald's outlet, closed against possible rioting. So where do all the rumors come from? "We don't believe in one thing, we don't think like a nation," he says. "Everybody has his own opinion and that is part of the problem." With reporting by Khuda Yar Khan/Islamabad