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Musharraf Takes a Bold, Risky Step Toward New Pakistan

Asia: President's initiatives cracking down on Islamic extremists may embolden religious moderates, some political analysts say.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf has, in effect, launched a jihad against Islamic extremism and the seeds of terror and violence it sows. If fully implemented and successfully executed, the campaign could change the character of this impoverished and often unstable country.

The campaign was announced Saturday in a televised speech to the nation during which Musharraf, a four-star general, wore civilian clothes and frequently invoked the teachings of the Koran to justify his actions. Seldom has the leader of any Islamic nation used such blunt language to attack religious extremists or publicly announced such bold initiatives to usurp the zealots' influence. At stake, many analysts say, is the destiny of Pakistan.

The radicals, Musharraf scoffed, "are people who try to monopolize and attempt to propagate their own brand of religion. They think as if others are not Muslims. These are the people who considered the Taliban to be a symbol of Islam and that the Taliban were bringing Islamic renaissance or were practicing the purest form of Islam."

Some political analysts believe that Musharraf's message--combined with the collapse of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, which left extremists feeling humiliated and dejected--could embolden religious liberals in the Islamic world. Moderate voices, whether of governments or individuals, have long been silent as the zealous minority used fear and violence to garner an influence that grew out of proportion to its numerical strength.

The measures Musharraf announced include bringing mosques and religious schools under government scrutiny, if not outright control. Five groups widely believed to be involved in internal or external terrorism were banned, as was the widespread use of loudspeakers to propagate hate-filled and inflammatory harangues. Upward of 300 extremists were arrested.

Musharraf went on to denounce terrorism in all forms and said--in reference to the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, where military tensions between Pakistan and India are volatile--that he will not allow Pakistan to be used for attacks on other nations.

Religious parties reacted with predictable scorn to Musharraf's crackdown. Some said they would challenge it in court, and others threatened to go underground. But mainstream media, which frequently are a good gauge of Pakistani public opinion, were supportive. Some of the newspapers and their reporters have been the victims of violent attacks by religious extremists.

"President Musharraf," editorialized the News, "has taken the bull of religious extremism and fundamentalism by its horns. It [is] clear that Pakistan had too long been exploited in the name of Islam."

The Nation commented that Musharraf "has certainly impressed his countrymen with his resolve to do what he thinks is right, rather than merely expedient."

On the dispute with India, Musharraf conveyed both firmness and flexibility by directly challenging Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to begin talks aimed at a peaceful solution and saying that Pakistani armed forces would "spill the last drop of their blood" defending their country if it was attacked.

Musharraf apparently will have met most of India's demands if he makes good on his promise to stop terrorism--much of which emanates from Kashmir, where anti-Indian militants include Arabs who fought in Afghanistan. At the same time, he appeased his countrymen by refusing to hand over to India 20 accused Pakistani or Kashmiri terrorists. India and Pakistan do not have an extradition treaty.

Members of the non-Muslim international community praised Musharraf's moves, aware that they were taken at considerable personal risk in an Islamic republic. Marc Ginsberg, a former U.S. ambassador appearing on Fox TV, described the speech as "another profile in courage." British Prime Minister Tony Blair lauded Musharraf's "defense of a tolerant and moderate Islam," and a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry noted "the positive tone of Musharraf's intention to end activity in Kashmir."

Musharraf started cracking down on extremists in August--a month before the terrorist attacks on the United States--and Western diplomats are convinced that he is sincere in his desire to end terrorism and earn Pakistan international respect. They also are aware that by joining the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, Musharraf was handed an opportunity to recast both his image and that of his country.

Six months ago, Musharraf led a military junta. Most of the world's top terrorists had passed through Pakistan at one time or another. Few world leaders would think of receiving Musharraf. The United States had imposed sanctions on his country. Bankruptcy threatened.

But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Musharraf did his policy somersault, ending support for the Taliban and denouncing the scourge of terrorism and extremism, which he said had "ruined" Pakistan.

The result: Sanctions were lifted, aid money started flowing in, Blair and a delegation of U.S. senators came calling. The slate was wiped clean. Musharraf and Pakistan were starting over as the darlings of the West in the war against terrorism.

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