KARACHI, PAKISTAN — Children here are taught to virtually worship Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. So it was with respect and shock that the country watched him confess on TV to leaking nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

He admitted his sin to the international community and took care to exonerate the powerful military from any role in what amounted to running a nuclear Wal-Mart in the underworld. “I, and only I, am responsible for this whole affair,” he said, grim-faced and tearful. “I beg for forgiveness.”

The next day, Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf quickly pardoned Khan, but that is not the end of the affair. So far, 11 have been arrested, including seven scientists from Khan Research Laboratories — named after and run by Khan until 2001. Many are questioning the rationale of detaining Khan’s associates and pardoning the big culprit.

“It’s clear that Khan has been made a scapegoat for the people behind the scenes,” said Hisam-ul Haq, the brother of one of Khan's aides now in custody. “Everything was controlled by the generals and not the scientists.”

Interestingly, most people in Pakistan don’t agree with the outside world that transferring nuclear technology is a crime at all. On the contrary, people from all walks of life I met during the past couple of days insist that Pakistan, the first nuclear Muslim country, should help all Muslim brethren countries to develop the atom bomb. Most believe that the government is acting against the scientists under heavy U.S. diplomatic pressure.

On February 6, an alliance of Pakistan’s seven religious parties — the second-largest political group in Parliament and in charge of two of four provincial governments in Pakistan — called for a countrywide strike in solidarity with nuclear scientists. The call turned violent in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, where hundreds of activists were arrested and dozens sustained injuries in clashes with police.

“The country should be grateful to the scientists who brought power and pride to the country,” Hafiz Nasarullah, a bearded demagogue, leading a procession, said. “They are a thorn in the heart of enemies of Islam who now want to eliminate and disgrace them.”

Another speaker said, “The USA and Europe are themselves the biggest proliferators. They supplied nuclear know-how to Israel and India. Why does nobody talk of them and bring them to the dock as was done with our heroes?”

“Dr. Khan is a national hero because in the eyes of all Pakistan he has brought about strategic balance in south Asia,” Pakistan’s foreign secretary Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri said last weekend in Germany.

However, many analysts foresee problems for the country. They warn that by pardoning Khan and detaining others Pakistan cannot close the nuclear Pandora’s box and will invite a demand from the international community to see the country’s nuclear installations. “Those who sold nuclear assets like chocolate are not only insane but are also an enemy of Pakistan,” said Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benzir Bhutto, who now lives in exile. “They must face the justice.”

The next few weeks are vital for Pakistan’s military ruler, considered by the U.S. to be its best and most crucial ally in the U.S.-led plan to fight radical Islamists. Musharraf’s opposition is fast growing at home as many people see him as too lenient towards the West. And unfortunately, General Musharraf has neither the guts nor the intentions to go ahead with an independent inquiry, or to get to the bottom of the clandestine, Mafia-style business of trading nuclear secrets.

The civilized world sees nuclear technology as a dangerous commodity. On the other hand, people in Pakistan see it as a weapon of ultimate pride for Muslim Ummah — meaning Muslim fraternity — across the world. They don’t see anything wrong with the transfer of nuclear know-how to Muslim countries.

“Our religion, Islam, binds a Muslim to help other Muslim brethren in hour of need,” said 22-year-old Abdul Fattah, a student, as I tried to convince him how dangerous and immoral it is to transfer nuclear technology across the globe. “Both Iran and Libya, our Muslim brethren, had been breathing under unremitting U.S. bullying so to help them to augment their defense is to follow the obligation of Islam.”

At this point, I asked him, “What about transferring nuclear know-how to communist North Korea? Was it too in line with a religious command?”

“No that was in exchange for helping us to build missiles to counter our enemy India,” he argued.

This attitude has forced the government to adopt a defensive posture on the subject. No government official can dare to say that Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan and Co. has committed a crime. Dr. Khan continues to be a hero of Pakistan. Even General Musharraf and other officials are still publicly calling him a national hero.

The day Dr. Khan confessed his crime of nuclear proliferation, Choudhari Shujait, the second-most powerful person in Pakistan, issued a statement that Khan spoke out so that Pakistan could be spared international wrath. “He made yet another sacrifice for Pakistan,” Choudhari said.

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