Extremist Tide Rises in Pakistan

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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 20, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 19 -- A potentially troubling era dawned Sunday in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where a top Islamist militant leader, emboldened by a peace agreement with the federal government, laid out an ambitious plan to bring a "complete Islamic system" to the surrounding northwest region and the entire country.

Speaking to thousands of followers in an address aired live from Swat on national news channels, cleric Sufi Mohammed bluntly defied the constitution and federal judiciary, saying he would not allow any appeals to state courts under the system of sharia, or Islamic law, that will prevail there as a result of the peace accord signed by the president Tuesday.

"The Koran says that supporting an infidel system is a great sin," Mohammed said, referring to Pakistan's modern democratic institutions. He declared that in Swat, home to 1.5 million people, all "un-Islamic laws and customs will be abolished," and he suggested that the official imprimatur on the agreement would pave the way for sharia to be installed in other areas.

Mohammed's dramatic speech echoed a rousing sermon in Islamabad on Friday by another radical cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who appeared at the Red Mosque in the capital after nearly two years in detention and urged several thousand chanting followers to launch a crusade for sharia nationwide.

Together, these rallying cries seemed to create an arc of radical religious energy between the turbulent, Taliban-plagued northwest region and the increasingly vulnerable federal capital, less than 100 miles to the east. They also appeared to pose a direct, unprecedented religious challenge to modern state authority in the Muslim nation of 176 million.

"The government made a big mistake to give these guys legal cover for their agenda. Now they are going to be battle-ready to struggle for the soul of Pakistan," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of security studies at Quaid-i-Azam university here. He predicted a further surge in the suicide bombings that have recently become an almost daily occurrence across the country. Two recent bombings at security checkpoints in the northwest killed more than 40 people.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to the region, said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN that the decision by insurgents to keep fighting in spite of the peace deal should be a "wake-up call to everybody in Pakistan that you can't deal with these people by giving away territory as they creep closer and closer to the populated centers of the Punjab and Islamabad."

Also Sunday, a suspected U.S. missile strike killed three people at a Taliban compound in the South Waziristan tribal region; such attacks have become a powerful recruitment tool for extremist groups in Pakistan as anti-American sentiment builds.

The government agreed to Mohammed's demands in an effort to halt violent intimidation by Taliban forces that the army was unable to quell despite months of operations in the former tourist haven. In recent interviews, Swati leaders and refugees described armed men in black turbans whipping suspected thieves on the spot, cutting off the ears and noses of village elders who opposed them, and selling videos of police beheadings.

"We really had no other choice. We had no power to crush the militants, and people were desperate for peace," said Jafar Shah, a Swati legislator. His Awami National Party, though historically secular, sponsored the sharia deal. "Now people are calling us Taliban without beards," he said ruefully, "but it was the only option available."

Provincial and federal officials also hoped their show of good faith would halt further insurgent inroads and buy time for foreign aid programs to shore up the impoverished northwest against the Islamists' message of swift justice and social equality.

Instead, the evidence suggests that the extremist forces have drawn the opposite lesson from their victory in Swat and are gearing up to carry their armed crusade for a punitive, misogynistic form of Islam into new areas. There have been numerous reports of Taliban fighters entering districts south and west of Swat, where they have brandished weapons, bombed and occupied buildings, arrested aid workers, and killed female activists.


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