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Asia's New Hotbed of Moderation

Politics: Pakistan's shift away from extremist Islamic groups will have effects far beyond its borders, many say.


LAHORE, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf's decision to reshape Pakistan as a moderate Islamic state carries implications that extend far beyond its borders, many people in this region believe.

Among other things, they argue, Pakistan's new moderate course will:

* Undercut extremist groups from throughout the Arab and broader Muslim world that have used Pakistan as both an important support base and a way station in the conduct of global terrorism.

* Ease long-standing tensions in Central and Southwest Asia that in many instances date back to the end of the Cold War.

* Give hope to political moderates in other Muslim countries as they watch one of their own reset the course of a nation by means of a carefully argued case against militant Islam as a social ill.

For Pakistan itself, Musharraf's plan--outlined in an address to the nation this month--signals an end to a quarter-century in which political power has flowed gradually yet steadily in the direction of conservative religious forces, turning the country into a haven for extremists.

Police Hold 2,500 With Alleged Ties to Militants

In the last two weeks, police have rounded up 2,500 people suspected of links to five banned militant Islamic groups. Although smaller sweeps have occurred before, only to be followed by the release of the detainees a few days later, the extent of the current operation and assurances from the government that many of those taken into custody will be prosecuted under Pakistan's anti-terrorism law have lifted the crackdown to another level, observers believe.

After two weeks of relative calm, those affected by the crackdown have begun to react. On Sunday, about 2,000 religious conservatives staged a demonstration in Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan, demanding an end to Musharraf's new path. In Karachi, a group called Harkat Moujahedeen is believed to be responsible for the kidnapping Wednesday of 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Although some moderates worry about a greater backlash and about Musharraf's resolve to follow through on his plan, they still view the fast-unfolding events as a watershed.

"It's the first time in the history of our country that these people are being pushed into retreat," said Kamila Hyat, joint director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "It's going to change the way we live and think."

Because Musharraf's speech was timed mainly to defuse the immediate threat of war with India--by signaling to New Delhi that he was prepared to crack down on terrorist groups launching attacks against India from Pakistani soil--some listeners questioned both the sincerity of Pakistani intentions and the breadth of the initiative.

However, reflections of the shift--including announced reforms of hard-line religious schools known as madrasas, a noticeable easing of long-standing constraints on intellectual debate, and apparently broad-based public support--have combined to convince many observers that it is not only real but highly significant.

One example: Najam Sethi, editor of the country's most liberal weekly newspaper, the Friday Times, said in an interview that he is suddenly receiving invitations to address groups that once banned him as too provocative.

"It's amazing how expression has been freed," said Khaled Ahmed, a columnist who serves as the paper's most aggressive public voice. "One speech, and the entire nation has turned moderate."

One Pakistan-based Western diplomat who tracks political developments in the region is convinced that the U-turn is genuine.

"We're watching the world's second-largest Muslim country moving from extremism to moderation," he said. "This is hugely important."

Others seem to agree.

"Historic," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell of Musharraf's speech and the course it charted. During a stopover this month in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called it "one of the most powerful, meaningful . . . consequential speeches we've heard from a leader in this region for a long, long time."

The enthusiasm is understandable.

For the last 25 years, Pakistan has hosted an array of Islamic militant organizations drawn first by the Muslim world's jihad against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan and later by other causes, including resistance to Russian forces in the breakaway region of Chechnya, to ruling Arab elites in Algeria and Egypt, and to post-Soviet governments in Central Asia.

Pakistan was also the preferred transit route into Afghanistan for members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist organization. Many observers are convinced that without Pakistan's kid-glove approach toward extremist groups, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States would have been far more difficult to carry out.

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