WASHINGTON DC, July 24, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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Pakistani religious zealots protest in Islamabad (Left, Below), jailed after Musharraf crack down

Pakistan at Crossroads Facing United Militants, Divided Leaders

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI, July 24: Very much like in the post-September 11 days, Pakistan is once again standing at a crossroad between the military and the mosque following the bomb attacks in London on July 7.

However, a major difference now is that the US and the United Kingdom are watching Pakistan's every action with unrelenting vigilance, which could force President General Pervez Musharraf to take action that will place him on a path of confrontation with various religious and political elements in the country.

As an important ally in the US-led "war on terror", and given that three of the four London bombers are said to have visited Pakistan within in a year prior to the attacks, Musharraf had to act, both quickly and firmly.

As a result, security forces have detained about 300 suspected Islamist extremists in raids on religious schools and other centers across the country.

Within Pakistan, though, this has had an almost immediate and potentially dangerous effect: there is a split within the corridors of power, and complete harmony among the previously splintered underground militant organizations, developed within days to fight back against government pressures.

Musharraf's televised address to the nation on Thursday was in effect a public announcement of a divorce between the military and the mosque. For the first time, although without citing its name, he called the influential Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) , the country's largest religious group, a regressive force.

"They were the ones who declared Jihad-i-Kashmir un-Islamic in 1948 [referring to the statement of the founder of the JI, Syed Maudoodi, that sending Wazir tribespeople to liberate Kashmir was un-Islamic, that war should be declared by the state and not by private citizens] and now they are disturbing the peace process between India and Pakistan."

The most significant part of the speech was Musharraf's condemnation of the JI's role in 1971 when it ran the "Bangladesh unacceptable" movement demanding that the rulers not recognize Bangladesh after the fall of Dhaka. (The JI's militant wing, al-Badr, fought side-by-side with the Pakistani army against Bengali separatists and the Indian army in the former East Pakistan. )

Now, the key question is whether the Pakistani army as an institution approves this divorce from religion.

On Thursday, police raided the core of Islamic madrassas (seminaries), the Binori Town Islamic Seminary in Karachi, and detained several foreign students. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a powerful alliance of six religious/political parties, has responded by calling for nationwide protests.

How the masses react to the government crackdown on madrassas is, however, secondary.

The central issue is that several underground militant organizations have linked in preparation for retaliatory action against the government if it, under immense Western pressure, carries out "real" actions.

Previously, most "crackdowns" were were a setup - militant groups were taken into confidence before members were arrested, and asked to be patient until the storm blew over. Now, both the militant groups and the army know that they cannot fool around as the US and the UK are both serious.

The case of one Haseeb Hussain raises questions. The 16-year-old Briton of Pakistani origin was pinpointed as one of the four London bombers, and according to Pakistani immigration officials he visited Pakistan last July via Saudi Arabia.

Now, Haseeb Hussain and his father have been interviewed at their High Wycombe home in England by Pakistani TV station ARY. "I first saw my photograph on Channel 4 [news] and I was terrified," the boy told ARY. "I didn't want people looking at me saying, hey, you are supposed to be dead," he told ARY. "Or someone saying that there goes the London bomber." His father told ARY that the family had indeed visited Karachi via Saudi Arabia. He appealed for British and Pakistani authorities to clear up the confusion.

Yahya Mujahid, a spokesperson of Jamaatudawa (formerly known as the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba), also took issue with reports that have surfaced about another of the bombers, Shahzad Tanweer.

"The whole story is built with bad intentions. Most of the allegations leveled against us are false. Even the story of Shahzad Tanweer, that he attended a madrassa at Mureedkey [headquarters of Jamaatudawa] is false. In fact, according to his uncle's statement, he attended a madrassa near Lahore. There are dozens of madrassas near Lahore and he need not necessarily have gone to Jamaatudawa. Secondly, he also spent time with Tableeghi Jamaat, which is [ideologically] contrary to Jamaatudawa in all aspects. How come would he wear two hats at the same time?" asked Yahya.

"On such baseless allegations they are aiming to put us behind bars. Are we only here to be rounded up? Don't we have any human rights?" Yahya asked. "We condemned the London bombing. It was murder of civilians, which just cannot be approved," Yahya maintained.

Reports of differences between Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Musharraf have been circulating for some months, but they appear to be coming to a head. Shaukat recently called on all heads of law-enforcing agencies and asked them to report directly to his command.

Shaukat also flexed his muscles when, on the instructions of President House, Brigadier Javed Cheema of the Crisis Management Cell led an operation against Lal Masjid Islamic Seminaries in Islamabad and detained several dozen students and teachers.

Shaukat asked the concerned police officials why they had acted without his permission, and issued an order for the immediate suspension and transfer from the service of all the top police officials of Islamabad. The arrested teachers and students were released.

Shaukat is proving more ambitious than Musharraf would like, with the premier wanting to be powerful and the person to whom all intelligence agencies and law-enforcing agencies report. This puts him on a collision course with Musharraf.

After rounding up the editorial staff of several pro-jihadi publications, the government issued notices to 17 different media organizations, including the two top-most newspaper groups, telling them that support of any "unscrupulous" group would be tantamount to meddling in the "war on terror" and that the government would take strong action, including arrests and seizure of publications.

The message from Musharraf is clear: you are either with us or against us. The government has also approached the US government and asked it to monitor some Washington-based Pakistani journalists and scholars who are disseminating misinformation against the Musharraf government, and in this manner disturbing his drive against terrorism.

The writer is Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com This article appeared on July 23, 2005 on Asia Times Online

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