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For Musharraf, Ramadan Question Won't Go Away

Asia: The Pakistani president has repeatedly pressed the need for an end to the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan during Islam's holiest month.


PESHAWAR, Pakistan — He's brought it up in Paris and Turkey, Britain and the United States. The embattled president keeps on asking, even though Western leaders have repeatedly dismissed his plea. Pervez Musharraf has little choice: The Ramadan question won't go away.

The holiest month on the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is imbued this year with political significance. Muslim nations argue that impoverished, war-weary Afghanistan should be spared attack until the month is over--and Musharraf is a zealous spokesman for their cause. The sacred stretch of fasting and prayer begins around Saturday, with the advent of a new moon.

Since the U.S. dropped its first bomb on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, Musharraf has found himself caught between a wrathful United States and the rowdy misgivings of his own people. At home, he has been pelted with criticism for supporting U.S.-led attacks and opening Pakistan's skies to warplanes.

Moderate Pakistanis May Be Radicalized

Pakistan is bound to its western neighbor by blood, religion and ancient tribal custom. These days, the newspapers are filled with death tolls and bloody tales of civilian casualties. Ambulances rumble across the border with loads of wounded Afghans. And in the dusty streets, thousands of furious protesters holler for an end to Musharraf's rule.

Those are the minority, but five weeks into the air campaign, scholars and politicians fear that an extended struggle could radicalize even moderate Pakistanis. Musharraf promised that the war would be speedy.

"When you talk about war, Ramadan means nothing in actual fact," said Zulfikar Ali Khan, retired commander of the Pakistani air force and a former ambassador to the United States. "But in this supercharged atmosphere, it means everything. It's one of the only things that could take the edge off extremism."

Musharraf seized power two years ago in a bloodless coup. At recent demonstrations, "Death to America!" has been screamed in the same breath as "Death to Musharraf!" At least two fundamentalist party leaders have been jailed on sedition charges after calling for Musharraf's demise.

The president stands to win back some badly needed credibility, Khan argues, if the United States halts the warfare--even for a day or two.

"He could turn around and say, 'Look what I convinced the United States to do,' " Khan said. "And that would help his situation."

If, on the other hand, the bombing continues into Ramadan, fundamentalist parties could capitalize on popular outrage. Attacks during the holy month would fuel the perception that the war on terrorism is in fact an assault on Islam.

"Musharraf can see where the situation is heading," said Imran Khan, chief of the moderate, secular Tehrik-i-Insaaf party. "If the bombing doesn't stop, it's quite clear he'll reach a point where he'll be unable to support the United States anymore."

In Muslim eyes, the Afghan war is complicated by the past decade of bloodshed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya and the Palestinian territories. Around the world, many Muslims have become convinced that they are locked in an extended battle with Judeo-Christian tradition.

"In each case, they find a clash between Muslims and others," said Anis Ahmad, dean of social sciences at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. "These are vague situations with very fixed targets, which leads people to think it's a kind of war against them. What else should they interpret?"

Angry Muslims May Be Driven to Extremism

Traditionally, fundamentalist Pakistani parties such as Jamaat-i-Islami succeed in drumming up mass protests but fall flat at the polls. But since the bombing began, extremist factions have emerged to lead the charge against Musharraf--and have provoked worries that nonradical but angry Muslims will be driven into fundamentalist folds.

Speaking on the fringes of a Jamaat-i-Islami protest that mobbed a main roadway recently in the city of Rawalpindi, organizer Mohammed Afzal Ezaz said the war has infused his party with new energy.

"America has not achieved its objectives. They have not arrested Osama [bin Laden]. They have not installed a new [Afghan] government," he said. "We have already developed hatred toward Americans. Bombing during Ramadan will make it even worse."

So far, the United States hasn't wavered. Officials have said that interrupting the bombing makes no military sense. Besides, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was quick to point out, warring Muslim countries have historically battled straight through Ramadan.

Indeed, in the 7th century AD, the prophet Muhammad fought the Battle of Badr, the first victory in the campaign that ended with his entry into Mecca, during Ramadan. In 1973, Egypt attacked Israel more than a week into the holy month, sparking the Yom Kippur War.

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