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Pakistan: Government Upholds Islamic Extremism -- Part 1

  • Charles Recknagel

Pakistan's support of the ruling Taliban militia in Afghanistan has strengthened extremist Islamic groups inside Pakistan itself. Now, many of the militants not only take part in fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but also have begun to speak of the need for a jihad -- or holy war -- against Pakistan's own secular establishment. In this first of a two-part series on Pakistan's Islamic extremism, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at why the government so far has been unable to curb the growing stridency of the militant groups.

Islamabad, 9 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When General Pervez Musharraf took power in a coup d'etat a year and a half ago, one of his first public promises was to rein in what Pakistanis call "the jihad groups."

The groups espouse militant forms of Islam with little tolerance for diversity. They have grown increasingly powerful in recent years and are now regarded by many officials as a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, the militant groups have proved to be valuable agents of Pakistan's regional foreign policy. They have repeatedly sent their members -- whose exact numbers are unknown but are reported to be in the tens of thousands -- to fight alongside the Taliban militia in Afghanistan. They also have routinely infiltrated guerrillas with Afghan combat experience into Indian-controlled Kashmir, where elements of the Muslim majority are locked in a secessionist struggle with New Delhi.

These activities advance Islamabad's official support of the Taliban and what it regards as Kashmir's struggle for self-determination. In both cases, the militant groups deliver armed assistance in conflicts where the Pakistani government says it offers combatants no more than moral support.

But the jihad groups have also come to be a worrisome force at home, where Pakistani officials estimate they now operate as many as 7,500 madrassahs, or religious schools, teaching extremist ideologies.

As their members hold mass rallies in Pakistan's major cities and brandish their assault weapons, they speak not only of delivering Islamic salvation to Afghanistan and Kashmir, but to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan itself.

That prospect has proved unsettling to the many in Pakistan who welcomed General Musharraf's early vows to crack down on the militants. In a speech a few days after his October 1999 coup, Musharraf condemned tit-for-tat violence between Pakistan's radical Sunni Moslem and minority Shiite Moslems groups. Last June, his government announced it would stop issuing licenses for weapons and ban their display as the first step of what it called a "de-weaponization" program to curb lawlessness.

But since those early steps, there have been few signs of follow-through. Pakistani journalists and policy analysts say Islamic militant leaders continue to appear in public backed by gun-toting fighters, and the government has begun to speak of the need for a slower and more progressive approach toward disarming them.

Western diplomats say one reason Islamabad appears to have backed down on curbing the militant groups is that they are closely linked with Pakistan's Islamic parties. Musharraf's military government is seeking the support of the Islamic parties -- which oppose the larger secular parties of exiled ex-prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif -- for its main priority, an anti-corruption drive.

Rifaat Hussein, a political analyst at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, says many Pakistanis now fear a creeping "Talibanization" of the society by militant Sunni groups. That phrase recognizes the fact that many of the Taliban's leaders are Afghan refugees who studied at radical Pakistani madrassahs, giving the fundamentalist militia and the Pakistani militants the same ideology.

Hussein says there are few signs the militants can gain the mass popular support needed to help them capture power in elections -- which are now on hold under the Musharraf government.

He also says that only increases the danger the militants one day may try to destabilize the country in hopes of seizing power by force.

"Historically, in all the five or six elections that have been held in Pakistan, none of these religious elements has been able to capture more than 2 percent of the popular vote. Now, even if they increase their popularity by 100 percent, they will not be able to win more than 5 percent of the popular vote, which would mean they will have 10 to 12 seats in a chamber of 210 and the rest are going to be sort of secular forces."

But he continues:

"It is their structural inability to win the sympathies of the Pakistani electorate which actually forces them to go out and resort to unconstitutional means to assert their power."

Hussein says the militant parties have little popular appeal because most Pakistanis prefer a more tolerant and mystical form of Islam than the groups espouse.

Already, militant groups have demanded the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law) in isolated but violent incidents in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. One revolt in 1995 was joined by hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani madrassah students before it was crushed by the army. At other times, militant groups have smashed satellite dishes, shot video shop owners, and chased women off the street in the western city of Quetta.

But even as many in Pakistan worry about the jihad groups' potential for violence, Islamabad appears ready to tolerate them because officials believe they have a limited popular base and can be contained.

Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute in Islamabad, says that the Pakistani military is waging its own ideological counter-offensive to prevent the spread of Islamic militancy inside the armed forces.

He says the military has its own mullahs in uniform who teach soldiers its own concepts of jihad.

"In the army they are being taught the concept of jihad by their own instructors, so they know what exactly jihad means. It is not a jihad that you hold a huge procession and say I am going to take over Islamabad. Jihad can be against illiteracy, jihad can be against social evils, and it also includes the defense of the country."

At the same time, analysts say that despite the ideological friction, the militants' role in Kashmir continues to make them too useful for any Pakistani government to ban them.

Hussein says Pakistan wants India to negotiate a settlement to the Kashmir question which allows the province's Muslim majority to determine its own future through a public referendum deciding whether to join Pakistan, or India, or be independent. The success of that strategy depends on convincing New Delhi it cannot control Kashmir by force. Rifaat Hussein says:

"Pakistan's support for some of these religious groups which are engaged in jihad in Kashmir has to be understood in context -- because Pakistan very firmly believes that if Indian forces are allowed to totally wipe out the Kashmir indigenous resistance, then this will give the Indian government very little incentive actually to talk about a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir [issue]."

That suggests Pakistan's jihad groups could continue enjoying wide room for maneuver at home at least so long as the Kashmir dispute continues. The quarrel shows no sign of being resolved soon. India currently maintains some 400,000 soldiers in the disputed province, where the continuing guerrilla war has claimed some 30,000 lives since 1990.

(The second part of a two-part series on Pakistan and Militancy takes a closer look at a radical madrassah to learn what kind of Islamic system in Pakistan the militants want.)