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Pakistan handles Islamic extremism with kid gloves

Violence and threats against those who dared to speak out against militants underscore extremism's deep reach into Pakistani society. But the government has proved powerless to stem the tide of radicalization.

March 29, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Christians mourn Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who was killed this month.
Christians mourn Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who was killed… (Rahat Dar, European Pressphoto…)

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Loud and combative, Fauzia Wahab is unafraid to denounce mullahs or defend deeply unpopular America. In recent weeks, however, the liberal lawmaker has sat hunkered down in her home in Karachi, rarely stepping out her front door.

Islamic militants elsewhere in Pakistan have assassinated a Cabinet minister and a prominent governor since the first of the year. But the Taliban and other violent extremist organizations aren't the only cause for concern.

The killings of Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti this month and Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer on Jan. 4 have exposed just how deep extremism has seeped into Pakistani society.

When Taseer's assassin, a 26-year-old police commando, made his first court appearance, lawyers in their traditional black suits and black ties greeted him with kisses and a cascade of rose petals.

A weak and corrupt government, led by the secular Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, has proved powerless. Even as it has launched military offensives against the Taliban in several areas, it has sought to appease militants in everyday society. And it has barely tried to stem the tide of radicalization in universities, the news media, security forces, political parties and even the legal community.

The military and intelligence communities also have the power to intervene. But both have ties to Islamic militants that go back decades.

"I have been advised by everyone to go home, to go into hibernation," Wahab, a ruling party member, said during a telephone interview from her home. "What else can I do? Am I supposed to come out on the road and say, 'Come on and kill me?' They are roaming around, and our lives are under threat."

The country's leaders have conspicuously steered clear of the issue that cost Taseer and Bhatti their lives: a blasphemy law that makes it a crime to insult the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or Islam. Human rights advocates say the law is frequently used to settle scores or persecute minorities, particularly Christians. Those found guilty may face the death penalty.

Both Taseer and Bhatti, a Christian, spoke out against the law. But after Taseer's assassination, leaders of the ruling party dropped any talk of revising the law; instead they vowed to not tamper with it.

Extremists were unconvinced and responded with a steady stream of death threats. Sherry Rehman, a leading PPP lawmaker who had proposed amendments to the law, received a spate of them. She has pulled back the amendments and, like Wahab, sits holed up in her Karachi home.

Although Wahab hasn't spoken out about the blasphemy issue, she received threats after saying CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who is accused of murdering two Pakistani men in January, has diplomatic immunity and should be released. Wahab has also accused Pakistan's judiciary of being soft on militants.

Ayaz Amir, a journalist and lawmaker with the main opposition PML-N party, said the killings of the two politicians "have reduced the space for rational talk; people are afraid right now."

"In private, politicians will talk about these things, but on the floor of parliament, on talk shows and in the press, they prefer to keep quiet," Amir said. "This encourages an atmosphere of intolerance to spread."

No institution appears immune. At the prestigious University of the Punjab, a radical group has clamped down on anything it deems un-Islamic, be it music classes or male and female students being seen together. When a professor had several of the group's students expelled for violent behavior last year, other members severely beat him with rods and sticks.

Even the upper chamber of parliament, the Senate, has been affected. After Taseer was assassinated, a move to offer a traditional memorial prayer was rejected, which observers said reflected the raw emotions caused by differences over the blasphemy law.

Meanwhile, extremist groups have been emboldened.

At a rally last month called by Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a group regarded in the West as a front for the banned militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, more than 20,000 Pakistanis jammed a highway in the eastern city of Lahore to hear Islamist leaders urge the government to establish a ministry for jihad, or holy war. India and the West have accused Lashkar-e-Taiba of masterminding the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 that killed more than 160 people.

"I can assure you that the funding for this ministry will be given by [Jamaat-ud-Dawa], and we will present a million trained sons of ours for this purpose," the group's political affairs chief, Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki, told the crowd. "Give these million warriors of God AK-47s!"

Analysts say radical groups can attract large numbers because the government, hopelessly mired in corruption and inefficiency, doesn't provide the unemployed, discouraged masses with much of an alternative.

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