How Extremists May Gain in Pakistan
By ZAHID HUSSAIN
April 20, 2007; Page A7; Wall Street Journal
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's capital is at a boil, with Islamist mobs meting out vigilante justice, a fatwa issued against the tourism minister, pro-democracy protests intensifying, fearful residents demanding order and the prospects for elections uncertain.
How -- or whether -- Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf reconciles these demands could determine how deeply resurgent Islamist extremism takes root in this moderate Muslim nation of 155 million people.
As North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops battle Taliban insurgents across the border in Afghanistan, two influential Muslim clerics are setting up a religious court in Islamabad and encouraging squads of zealots to enforce an antivice campaign. Westernized and politically moderate Pakistanis worry about this threat of "Talibanization."
But moderates are divided over how to tackle extremists. About 100,000 people rallied Sunday in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, to call for tough action against the antivice campaign. That protest was organized by the Mutahida Qami Movement, a secular party that supports Gen. Musharraf in the coalition government.
Other moderate parties say Islamist radicals could best be fought by a civilian-led government that also has the military's backing. These parties want Gen. Musharraf to step down as army chief and allow elections and unfettered democracy.
Gen. Musharraf galvanized the opposition last month with his dismissal of the country's top judge for what the government called "misconduct." Critics claim Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was removed because Gen. Musharraf was unhappy with his rulings. The dismissal sparked a series of violent, growing protests against Gen. Musharraf and his military-backed government. Critics fear Gen. Musharraf will use the unrest to postpone legislative elections due in October, when his five-year term expires.
President Musharraf has announced his intention to seek another term but hasn't indicated he plans to resign his post as army chief of staff, as required by Pakistan's constitution.
The political instability is increasingly worrying officials in the Bush administration, who generally view U.S. policy as wholly tied to Gen. Musharraf. The growing protests against his rule have raised debates within Washington policy circles about who might succeed him. But U.S. officials say they see few real alternatives, particularly as opposition leaders such as former Premier Benazir Bhutto have poor track records as rulers.
"There's no real Plan B," said a U.S. official working in South Asia.
Even if polls are held this year, Mr. Musharraf is likely to hold on to the presidency: Pakistan's president isn't directly elected, but chosen by an electoral college, comprised of the legislature and the provincial assemblies.
Political analysts in Pakistan say public anger with Gen. Musharraf could turn against his major source of authority: the military. "The general has started the war within for only one reason: to perpetuate his rule," asserts Tariq Hassan, a Harvard-educated attorney and former World Bank executive. "He has not only denigrated the highest judicial institution in the country but has also caused grievous harm to his own constituency -- the army."
Meanwhile, dozens of bearded students of a local religious school have been roaming the capital in recent days, wielding sticks and demanding that video shops close for selling products in violation of Islamic law.
Hundreds of female Muslim students of another radical school, shrouded head to toe in black burqas, have raided houses in residential neighborhoods in Islamabad they claim are being used as brothels.
Cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz (center) surrounded by guards on a roof of the Lal Mosque.
Zealots are a common sight at traffic lights around the capital, where they warn women to stop driving -- another supposed sin against Islam.
The campaign in Islamabad is led by two radical clerics -- Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his brother Maulana Abdul Aziz. The brothers have set up their unauthorized Islamic court at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, where they are prayer leaders and head the adjacent women's religious school. Both openly support Osama bin Laden and urge holy war against the West.
As part of their campaign, Lal Masjid clerics Saturday issued a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for the sacking and trial of Tourism Minister Nilofer Bakhtiar, who was photographed hugging her paraglider pilot after completing a jump in France. The clerics deemed such displays of affection between the sexes un-Islamic, and Ms. Bakhtiar has gotten death threats.
The Lal Masjid clerics aren't affiliated with a political party, though their actions mirror the rise of the Taliban, whose law-and-order campaign was a path to power in Afghanistan. The Islamist vigilantism in Islamabad follows incidents in which religious radicals have attacked video shops and burned TV sets in northern border areas with Afghanistan, a sanctuary for Taliban insurgents. In these areas, barbers have been warned since early this year not to shave beards, and people are prohibited from playing music, even at weddings. Women are barred from coming out of their homes alone.
Gen. Musharraf's government has done little to stem the influence of Islamic extremists. Many Pakistani political analysts say the extremism presents a serious threat to Pakistan's political stability and regional security. Critics accuse the president of allowing radical clerics in Islamabad to act with impunity to avoid confronting the possibility of more opposition from conservative Muslims or provoking terrorist reprisals from militants.
"No one believes that the government is helpless or incapacitated against the religious extremists," says Najam Sethi, editor of the independent Pakistani newspaper the Daily Times. "Gen. Musharraf seems to be digging in for the status quo, which is actually a recipe for Islamic insurrection" in the long run.