Prague, 10 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- General Pervez Musharraf -- "Bush"-arraf to his critics at home -- gets a mixed press. While his admirers describe him as a keystone of the global war on terrorism, his detractors say he likes to have things both ways -- striking out at Islamic extremism with his left arm only to embrace it with his right.
But Pakistan's president evidently feels it is time to set the record straight. He has had enough, it seems, of being told that Pakistan is a seedbed for Islamic fundamentalism and indirectly responsible for the London bombings, which killed more than 50 people.
This week, he attempted to turn the tables on his critics -- in particular, those who have sought to establish a link between the bombers and religious schools in Pakistan. The bombers, he reminded his listeners, were British born and bred.
Abbas Nasser, a specialist on Southern Asia at the BBC's World Service, said that Musharraf is irritated by the suggestion that the roots of Britain's current problem with terrorism are in Pakistan rather than Britain itself.
"I think what he was reacting to was the fact that both Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, have expressed concerns about the role of the Pakistani madrasahs," Abbas said. "Now, yes, Pakistan has been a hotbed of Islamic militants. Madrasahs -- or religious schools, seminaries -- do exist in large numbers, with some foreign funded and some locally funded. But there's very little evidence of militants training in madrasahs. This happens outside the formal framework of madrasahs, really."
Britain, Musharraf implied, would do better to put its own house in order first before casting blame on others. And it should begin by cracking down immediately, he said, on its own extremist Muslim clerics. This means taking control of the mosques and those using them to "pollute the minds of people towards extremism and hate."
Nobody, he said, has a right to preach hatred, militancy, or aggression against anyone, whether against the government, other sects, or religions.
Musharraf is caught firmly between the proverbial rock and a hard place -- squashed uncomfortably between radical Islamists at home and the hawks in Washington. He feels he has gone out on a limb to help the West despite bitter anti-American feelings at home -- and still it criticizes him.
The British argument is not that Pakistan bred the bombers -- it self-evidently did not -- but that some of its madrasahs have become centers of high-octane Islamic extremism.
But there are many -- not just in the West -- who feel he has a case to answer. The British argument is not that Pakistan bred the bombers -- it self-evidently did not -- but that some of its madrasahs have become centers of high-octane Islamic extremism. Some of these religious schools, it is feared, are providing the ideological nourishment for disenchanted young Muslims around the world.
Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and author who lives in the Pakistani city of Lahore. Rashid, who has written extensively on Islamic extremism in the region, believes the problem goes deeper still.
"The real heart of it is there's a lot of cynicism and skepticism about the fact that, since 9/11, there have been several crackdowns on the extremists, but they've not been effective," Rashid said. "They've been carried out very halfheartedly. This most recent crackdown -- in which 800 people have been jailed and now 1,400 students in the madrasahs are being asked to leave the country -- are again not really tackling the problem. The real problem is tackling the extremist groups and their leaders who are still around and very active."
But does Musharraf have the will?
Ambivalence, say his critics, lies at the heart of everything he does. Pakistan's president is being asked to crack down on Islamic extremism, yet he is himself allied to a coalition of radical Islamic parties in the National Assembly. The Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam (JUI) is one of the most powerful fundamentalist parties in the Pashtun tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. For years, it worked closely with the intelligence service and army and spawned the violent fundamentalist groups that now feed Al-Qaeda.
"These extremist groups have been involved for many, many years in a very proactive policy, both in Afghanistan and Kashmir," Rashid said. "And they remain a very important element in that foreign-policy agenda. And I think the military is very loathe to try to get rid of them at this stage or to break up their infrastructure in case they're needed again. And here we get into the area of what the military defines as national security. I don't think it is condoning extremism and fundamentalism, but it sees these groups as playing an important national security role."
It's a perception that Musharraf, whose closest allies are in the military, can be expected to share.
And the ambivalence is likely to prevail -- at least as long as instability continues in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains locked in dispute with India over Kashmir.