Pakistan assassinations highlight sway of radical clerics

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Yousaf Qureshi made international headlines in December when he offered $6,000 to anyone who killed a Pakistani Christian woman convicted of blasphemy. This month, the cleric told worshipers packed into his 17th-century mosque here that extremists had done a “marvelous job” days before, by assassinating a cabinet minister who had defended the woman.

Those statements might count as incitement to violence under Pakistani law. But no government or law enforcement officials have confronted him, Qureshi said on a recent morning.

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“I can announce that we are coming to the street with 4,000 armed students,” said Qureshi, a jolly man whose eyes are rimmed with black liner and who, as caretaker of a historic building, is on the provincial government payroll. “What can the government do?”

The recent killings of the minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, and Punjab governor Salman Taseer were stark demonstrations of the rising stakes in the war of ideas roiling Pakistan. Here, Islamist extremists openly pledge death to those who dare disagree with them but are rarely challenged by the U.S.-backed state.

Pakistani religious organizations, many of which have ties to the powerful military, have always fared poorly at the polls. But their street power is increasingly driving the agenda in Pakistan, in stark contrast to the secular democracy movements shaking Muslim nations in the Middle East. Under recent pressure from Islamic groups, some of them outlawed, the weak Pakistani government has abandoned support for a review of stringent blasphemy laws and avoided taking a stance on the case of a CIA contractor jailed on murder charges.

While police and military campaigns have slowed the pace of terrorist attacks, critics fault Pakistani leaders for making little effort to stem violent religious ideology. Firebrand sermons blare from mosque loudspeakers. Madrassas remain largely beyond government control, despite an eight-year effort to bring them into the mainstream. Courts rarely convict terrorism suspects, leaving them free to spread their ideas.

Critics accuse the government and other elected officials of responding to the recent assassinations with cowardice and nonchalance. Bhatti, they note, was a clear target after the killing of Taseer, but Bhatti’s requests for a bulletproof car went unmet.

In the days following Bhatti’s killing, Interior Minister Rehman Malik — who has said publicly that he would kill a blasphemer himself — suggested Bhatti was to blame for the security breach. Several politicians deemed the killing a conspiracy to defame the nation.

The ruling Pakistan People’s Party frequently says it opposes religious fanaticism, which President Asif Ali Zardari called “a tinderbox poised to explode across Pakistan” in a recent Washington Post column. But party officials argue that bold action against religious figures who preach violence would only antagonize extremists, triggering more bloodshed.

Those fears are real. A 2007 army siege of a radical mosque in Islamabad sparked a wave of militant violence that continues today. In 2009, militants responded to a major army offensive with a string of urban bombings.

In a recent meeting with foreign journalists, federal information minister Firdous Ashiq Awan blamed extremism on government coalition partners, provincial officials, stingy international donors and CIA drone strikes. But she appeared unable to cite government actions to counter the problem.

Clerical influence, which has been rising for decades, has also intimidated members of civil society. The military, which some government officials and analysts allege encourages Islamist fanaticism, responded to the killings of Bhatti and Taseer with silence. But activists say the task of countering radical ideas falls chiefly to the secular ruling party, which could demand that law enforcement agencies crack down on hate speech and galvanize its followers to advocate religious tolerance.

“Why not tell your electorate that this is a very serious existential fight, and let’s go and fight it?” said Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan representative for Human Rights Watch.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said authorities would do their “utmost” to find and punish Bhatti’s killers. But in an ominous sign, police said no witnesses to the attack agreed to provide statements for the initial report.

Radical clerics, meanwhile, continue to call publicly for the deaths of liberal politicians. A court declined to issue arrest warrants for two clerics who inspired Taseer’s killer. In interviews, police officials in Lahore and Islamabad said they monitor sermons, but imams are rarely punished.

“The unfortunate reality is that the state has not yet decided how to tackle these extremists,” said a senior Lahore police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Mullahs carry huge street power, and they are capable of disrupting law and order. The smart police officers, they always choose to have good relations with them.”

Government efforts to reform madrassas provide another example of that sway. Though federal education officials estimate that only about 8 percent of Pakistani schoolchildren attend the religious schools, researchers say they offer poor schooling at best and teach sectarianism and hatred at worst.

In 2004, former dictator Pervez Musharraf, with U.S. encouragement, announced a program to register madrassas and expand their curricula. But “no serious attempt” was made until 2010 because clerics refused to cooperate, said Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali, who was, until recently, education minister.

The program dissolved last month when the education ministry was devolved to the provinces.

Abdul Qudoos, a spokesman for a group of 13,000 madrassas, said clerics continue to disdain the idea of government oversight of religious schools. “They have failed everywhere,” Qudoos said of the government. “Why should it be different with this?”

That air of untouchability is echoed by Qureshi, the Peshawar imam, who also runs a 700-student madrassa that teaches only the Koran. Studying other topics, he said, would instill materialism in students.

Qureshi said his reward offer for the killer of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman, still stands, and he boasted he could collect the money from worshipers in 15 minutes. He said he already has $1 million in a briefcase, ready for anyone who kills a Danish cartoonist who drew the prophet Muhammad.

Qureshi said his rhetoric has occasionally led local officials to briefly bar him from sermonizing. But they always buckle when his congregation starts rumbling.

“I have 10,000 followers. All are holy warriors,” he said. “They will come out to the streets without thinking, just in the name of Islam.”

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

 
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