In Pakistani port city of Karachi, a new resolve to turn against Taliban

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 7, 2010

KARACHI, PAKISTAN -- The bearded clerics who run Jamia Binoria, a large seminary in a shabby industrial zone, might seem to have much in common with the Taliban. They come from the same Deobandi strain of Islam, which rejects Western values and seeks to create a pure Islamic state. They require students to memorize the Koran and live an austere, regimented life steeped in religion.

But the leaders of Jamia Binoria insist that they want nothing to do with the Taliban and regard its members as barbaric extremists. They say the recent surge in Taliban suicide bombings across the country have only complicated their lives, leading Pakistani and Western officials to brand seminaries such as theirs as potential terrorist schools and making it harder for them to chart a course between modern education and traditional faith.

"They say we all teach Kalashnikov culture, but that is a wrong image," said Mufti Muhammad Naeem, the seminary director, who expressed pride in its new computer lab and its large number of female students. "The hard-liners accuse me of being a front for American interests, and the Americans harass me at the airport," he said. "We reject Talibanization and we want to be a model for the future, but we get pressure from all sides."

Karachi, a cosmopolitan port city in far southern Pakistan, seems a far cry from the rugged Taliban sanctuaries of the northwestern tribal belt, but officials say it has often served in recent years as a financial conduit, immigration safety valve and religious pipeline for extremists.

Now, however, the city of 18 million is finding new motives and means to turn against the Taliban, especially after a bombing late last month killed 44 people during a Shiite religious procession. The strong secular party in city hall has made it a priority to rid the area of Taliban influence. And Pashtuns, a large ethnic minority, are facing social and political ostracism because they share linguistic and tribal roots with the Taliban.

"Karachi has been on a fast track to Talibanization," said Farooq Sattar, a former mayor from the ruling Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). "They already had a base here from the Afghan war. There were a lot of sleeper cells, and they used the city for rest, refuge and raising money." More recently, he said, Taliban gangs have carried out dozens of robberies and kidnappings for ransom and have begun seeking new urban recruits.

Sattar and others said local officials have employed a variety of methods to track and curb Taliban support. They have rewarded moderate seminaries such as Jamia Binoria, to which they donated the computer lab, and have registered more than 2,000 seminaries in the area, many of which had never been catalogued or monitored by the government.

Police investigators have moved aggressively to uncover and crack down on underground networks that commit crimes for extremist groups, and experts have worked with local banks to better scrutinize informal, large or frequent money transfers, especially to small businesses, individuals or organizations in the tribal northwest.

Internal documents from one bank, made available by Sattar, spoke of the "urgent need to strengthen due diligence" on suspicious cash transfers "to and from areas considered prone to financing illegal activities including terrorism." The documents listed a dozen bank branches in the northwest as being "higher risk" and included a long list of large money transfers to localities where there is little business that could warrant them.

Public support for the Taliban in Karachi, a modern city full of office towers and wealthy entrepreneurs, has generally been limited to conservative religious groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami and gritty enclaves of Pashtuns, including hundreds of thousands who have migrated from the Taliban-plagued northwest.

Pashtun leaders here denied supporting the extremists and said their community has been unfairly tarred with the Taliban brush. They said the problem has exacerbated ethnic discrimination by the Mohajir majority, which dominates the corridors of power in Karachi under the MQM, often denying Pashtuns jobs, education and health benefits.

Some local Pashtuns acknowledged sympathy for the original Taliban movement in Afghanistan, which helped restore order after a chaotic civil war in the 1990s, but others said they had fled from the abuses of the Taliban-run Afghanistan. Many recent migrants moved to Karachi to escape conflict in the Pakistani northwest, where government troops have been fighting Taliban forces intermittently for several years.

"The Taliban are brutal and barbaric, and it is their fault we suffer so much discrimination," said Hazrat Hussain, 32, a cellphone dealer in a poor Pashtun district of Karachi who migrated from the Swat area of northwest Pakistan a decade ago. "They are killing innocent Pashtuns with suicide bombs, and they are destroying the image of our community."

Among the aboveground religious groups in the region, only Jamaat-e-Islami remains openly supportive of the Taliban, regularly holding rallies that denounce the West as orchestrating attacks blamed on the Taliban. But other established Islamic groups said Jamaat, which is based in Punjab province, has limited public support in Karachi and surrounding Sindh province.

Although numerous Deobandi mosques and seminaries operate in Pashtun enclaves, moderate versions of Islam, including Sufi mysticism, are more deeply rooted among Karachi residents. One moderate group, Sunni Tehrik, lost two top leaders to Taliban attacks.

"Many of us have been victims of the Taliban, and we are all against their agenda," said Sarwat Qadri, the leader of Sunni Tehrik, whose father was assassinated in 2006. He said there are signs of a growing public rejection of the Taliban.

"A year ago, probably 70 percent of Pakistanis accepted them. Now it is less than 20 percent," he said. "But we need to keep making people aware of what they really are, until terrorism is eradicated."

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