Politics & Policy

Gathering Storm of Extremism

A cloud over Pakistan.

Since coming to power in 1999, Gen. Pervez Musharraf has adopted a policy of “enlightened moderation” to accommodate religious extremism in Pakistan while preventing the wholesale Islamization of his country. But last month’s battle for the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the spasm of suicide attacks in its wake, and the resurgence of al Qaeda leadership near the Afghan border suggest that his strategy has failed. More evidence arrived this past weekend, when pro-Taliban militants occupied a shrine in what threatens to become another bloody encounter with government troops. Indeed, militants are promising to take over mosques and seminaries throughout the country.

#ad#Now is the moment for Pakistan to chart a course to defeat terrorism — one that truly respects human rights and democratic ideals.

It should have surprised no one that Islamic extremists could turn a state-supported mosque into a bunker of terrorist mayhem. Gen. Musharraf’s government has long depended on religious extremists for political support. He has failed to crack down on radical madrasas that incubate Islamist rage. And he has enlisted tribal leaders in a feckless attempt to appease al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the lawless regions bordering Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the government’s religious-affairs minister, Ijaz-ul-Haq, has stirred the cauldron of extremism to the boiling point. After Britain awarded a knighthood to author Salman Rushdie, Haq all but called for a holy war against the West. “If somebody has to attack by strapping bombs to his body to protect the honour of the Prophet,” he said, “then it is justified.” When prime minister Shaukat Aziz pledged that militant madrasas would be confronted, Haq vowed to protect the religious schools “the way we protect our homes.”

The West’s patience with Musharraf is understandable. He has helped to capture and kill numerous terrorists. He is facing a political crisis, and the alternatives to him in Pakistan could be much worse.

However, patience — and support — should not be unlimited or unconditional. The United States plans to deliver $750 million in aid to Pakistan’s tribal areas over the next five years. But America’s latest National Intelligence Estimate, released earlier this week, blames Pakistan’s hands-off approach toward its tribal regions for the aggressive growth of al Qaeda. Unless Musharraf is serious about defeating Islamic extremism, U.S. aid could easily fall into the hands of al Qaeda operatives.

What should the Western democracies expect of Pakistan? A government that tolerates ministers who incite terrorism should be put on notice. An Islamic regime that ignores the effect of religious extremism on moderates and religious minorities must face diplomatic consequences.

Despite his liberal rhethoric, for example, Gen. Musharraf has helped to defeat proposals to reform the country’s blasphemy law. Introduced in 1986, the law calls for the death penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. The law is vague, requires no evidence — an accusation by one person is sufficient — and demands no proof of intent. It is used not only to target religious minorities, but is wielded by Muslims to settle personal scores.

No one yet has been executed under the law, but anyone accused of blasphemy is marked for life in the eyes of the extremists. Even if acquitted, the accused can never live in freedom again; they either are forced into hiding or flee the country. Some have been murdered. Those in prison are often shackled and kept in solitary confinement.

Gen. Musharraf also has failed to challenge an apostasy bill now in the National Assembly — even though the bill would impose the death penalty on anyone who converts from Islam to another religion. The reason goes back to his political alliance with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of pro-Taliban, pro-al Qaeda parties.

It is thus no coincidence that a culture of intolerance is spreading throughout the country. In June, four student nurses at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Rawalpindi were suspended, along with the principal and a member of staff — all Christians — for allegedly desecrating a verse from the Koran. They deny the charge, and there is absolutely no evidence against them. Yet an armed mob staged a protest against the school, while the Musharraf government kept quiet.

The government’s passive silence is as damaging as the active complicity of some of its ministers: it is seen by extremists as a green light to continue their campaign of intimidation and violence.

In a televised addressed last month, Gen. Musharraf vowed to combat them. “Wherever there is fundamentalism and extremism,” he said, “we have to finish that, destroy that.” The struggle against Islamic extremism must be waged on the battlefield, in Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan, with a determination that the Musharraf government has yet to demonstrate. But it also must be carried out in the country’s institutions: its schools, mosques, courts, and parliament. The crucial test for every Islamic country — and for every liberal and democratic government — is how its institutions treat minority groups, whatever their political, ethnic, or religious stripe.

Pakistan — America’s crucial ally in the war on terror — is failing that test. The Talibanisation of the country is now a real possibility. Pakistan’s democratic supporters must challenge Gen. Musharraf to convert “enlightened moderation” into tough and effective policies — before it is too late.

— Benedict Rogers is a journalist and human rights campaigner working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide based in London. Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and served as a human-rights adviser to the Congressional Task Force on U.N. Reform.

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