A 'Moderation' of Freedom
Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf Isn't Practicing What He Preaches
By Samina Ahmed and John Norris
Tuesday, June 15, 2004; Page A23
Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, recently made a broad and seemingly heartfelt call for Muslims to raise themselves up through what he terms "enlightened moderation" [op-ed, June 1]. Decrying the influence of militants, extremists and terrorists, Musharraf insisted that political injustice lay at the heart of the vast suffering of Muslims around the globe. His path forward is for Muslims to disavow extremism in favor of socioeconomic progress and for the United States to take on a much bolder role in resolving political disputes in the Muslim world, particularly in places such as Palestine and Kashmir.
The words sound good, and such language from the leader of a nuclear nation on the front lines of the war against terrorism should be reassuring. But sadly, to most people who follow Pakistan closely, Musharraf's comments come across as dangerously close to farce. While advocating enlightened moderation abroad, Pakistan's leader is content to practice enlightenment in extreme moderation at home.
First and foremost, he continues to avoid handing real power back to democratically elected officials. While the Bush administration repeatedly holds up Iraq as a nation that could serve as a shining example of Islamic democracy in action, it continues to offer a blank check to a Pakistani government in which all power resides in the military. Curbs on democratic freedoms in Pakistan remain draconian. To discourage domestic dissent, the government has sentenced Javed Hashmi, leader of Musharraf's main political opposition, to 23 years in prison for daring to offer criticism. And it deported an exiled opposition leader, Shahbaz Sharif, when he had the temerity to attempt to return home after the Supreme Court confirmed the right of all citizens to actually reside in Pakistan.
In the same vein, Musharraf's domestic reforms are primarily aimed at strengthening military rule. For example, he promoted a recent plan for a devolution of power to local officials as a means to "empower the impoverished" and strengthen local government. Instead, it has undercut mainstream moderate political parties, left widespread corruption unchecked and shifted power away from the provinces as a means to bolster military rule.
U.S. officials are rightly beginning to grumble that they are not getting what they are paying for with billions of dollars of economic and military aid. In high-profile pledges two years ago, Musharraf vowed to crack down on madrassas, the religious schools where many Pakistani children receive their education and which have often been a wellspring of extremism. Pakistan has failed to deliver on those pledges; most madrassas remain unregistered, their finances unregulated, and the government has yet to remove the jihadist and sectarian content in their curricula.
The Pakistani government has taken a similar approach to jihadist organizations. The growth of jihadist networks continues to threaten both domestic and international security. After declaring that no group would be allowed to engage in terrorist activities in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the government ordered a number of extremist groups to do little more than change their name. One extremist leader was allowed to run for parliament, and won, even though he had been charged with more than 20 violent crimes. The leaders of other banned groups, designated as terrorist organizations by the United States, continue to preach freely their sectarian and anti-Western jihad. Pakistan has also notably failed to adequately address important issues such as terrorist financing, including money laundering, making the country a favorite base of operation for all too many extremist organizations.
Indeed, escalating sectarian violence in Karachi, deplored by the U.N. secretary general, painfully underscores the government's failure to tackle extremists within its own borders. This failure was also shown in the government's halting and contradictory statements after cordon and search operations in northwest Pakistan designed to apprehend al Qaeda operatives and Taliban militants. After initially trumpeting that the arrest of "high value" suspects was imminent, the government sheepishly had to admit that any such suspects had escaped as it engaged in negotiations with local tribesmen to free a number of captured Pakistani soldiers.
Pakistan could serve as the force of moderation and enlightenment espoused by Musharraf, but it will require enlightened leadership on his part. Pakistan's military needs to return to the sidelines of political life and give its moderate political parties -- which have always done reasonably well in keeping a lid on extremism -- a chance to function. While the military has done a good job in using the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to strengthen its position, military governments across the globe have demonstrated that they usually do not stand the test of time or enlightenment.
Samina Ahmed is South Asia project director and John Norris is special adviser to the president of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that specializes in conflict resolution.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company