A Turkish path for Pakistan?

In curbing militancy, Musharraf hopes to create a modern-minded Muslim state.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To many outsiders, it looks as if Pakistan has a new man in charge.

Since Sept. 11, Gen. Pervez Musharraf has embraced the US war on terrorism, opening four Pakistani bases to American forces to attack the Taliban. Earlier this month, he announced a zero-tolerance policy for Islamic extremists in an effort pull back from the brink of war with neighboring India.

Is General Musharraf a local version of Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish leader who separated mosque and state in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire?

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Musharraf spent seven years of his childhood in Turkey - one of the world's most secularized Muslim countries - learned to speak Turkish, and even lists Ataturk as his "most admired person" on his official profile.

Or, is Musharraf - a man who talks like a democrat but took over Pakistan like an army autocrat - simply a pragmatic military strategist? Did he look at the possibility of being on the wrong side of the Bush administration's "with us or against us" ultimatum, and is chose a side?

Perhaps. But Pakistanis close to Musharraf say that the events of recent months fit neatly into the vision Pakistan's leader has had since he seized the presidency in a coup two and-a-half years ago. He has a gradual plan to cap Islamic fundamentalism and return Pakistan to a modern-minded Muslim state.

Musharraf's latest moves include making bold gestures towards cooling down tensions with India by outlawing five Islamic groups and arresting some 2,000 suspected militants. But the tension between the South Asia rivals ratcheted up a few notches again after India blamed Tuesday's deadly shooting attack at the American Cultural Center in Calcutta on a group with links to Pakistan's ISI, or Inter-Service Intelligence agency. Pakistan denies the charge.

This setback comes as Musharraf, say acquaintances, is growing frustrated with the lack of dividends he has gained for his cooperative stance with the US - in large part because of the perception here that the US still stands firmly in India's corner.

Secretary of State Colin Powell's statements in New Delhi on Friday that Pakistan would consider handing over 20 wanted suspects to India was viewed here as an embarrassingly premature move that put Musharraf on the spot.

"This should make it clear to Musharraf that you can't trust the Americans," says Dr. Shireen Mazari, executive director of the government-funded Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad.

"The result will be increasing mistrust, and increasing difficulty of Pakistan to give long-term support to the US [in Afghanistan]," she says.

Musharraf is fighting battles on several fronts. He is trying to prove to the US and India that he is really reining in Islamic militants, while convincing the Pakistani public that he will not give up support for the Kashmiris - who are 80 percent Muslim and are seen here as legitimate freedom-fighters. Musharraf also wants to show that he is cooperating with the US in the hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, while assuring Pakistanis that he is not joining up with any perceived Western crusade against Islam.

And perhaps most challenging, he is trying to regulate and reform the madrassahs - or seminaries - which sent thousands of young men off to wage jihad in neighboring Afghanistan and Kashmir.

"It's not that he wants a lock on every mosque," says Noman Shafi, a political analyst at Qaid il-Azam University in Islamabad. "It's not like Turkey, where you cannot say your prayers in the park because it's illegal." Instead, Mr. Shafi says, he wants to make sure Pakistan doesn't continue to educate a generation of children, mostly from poorer families, who have studied nothing but the Koran.

The university's name, which translates to "Great Leader," is the title ascribed to the country's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was also influenced by Ataturk's writings. But in today's Pakistan, "secular" is something of a taboo word. Musharraf's supporters insist he would never try to enforce the kind of secularism as has been tried - and often failed - in other Muslim countries.

But it is not easy to show his tolerant side in the midst of a crackdown on the country's Islamic militants, as well as a reported military and intelligence shakeup that moved pro-Taliban officers out of positions of power. Musharraf says new madrassahs will have to register with the authorities, and foreign students must have visas and special permission from their home governments. Mosque sermons, government officials say, may be taped for monitoring.

"These people have made a state within a state and have challenged the writ of the government," Musharraf said in his Jan. 12 speech to the nation. "We must check abuse of mosques and madrassahs and they must not be used for spreading political and sectarian prejudices."

The Dec. 13th attack on the Indian Parliament and Sept 11th have become the two defining moments in the Musharraf's presidency. And while Musharraf's attempt to reinvent his country's erstwhile image as a nation of Taliban supporters and jihad sign-me-ups is being welcomed by educated urbanites, some say he's sowing the seeds of a major backlash.

"All of this frustration will lead to the building of another Taliban - a Pakistani Taliban - not like ... the one in Afghanistan, but for the same reasons," says Mullah Abdul Aziz, the head of the Martyrs of Islam Mosque, one of Islamabad's largest.

Already there's pressure within the military for Musharraf to demand a timetable for how long the US plans to use the bases in Pakistan, which have served as launchpads for attacks on Afghanistan.

"He hasn't said it, but he should be [disappointed]," says retired General Hamid Gul, a former head of the ISI. "They viewed us as a coalition pawn rather than a coalition partner on Afghanistan."

Javed Jabbar, who served in Musharraf's cabinet until Oct. 2000, says that Musharraf's efforts to bring more democracy and less theocracy "is the natural progression from the point at which he took charge of Pakistan. It's not a change of heart or change of mind."

In fact, says Nazari, Musharraf is trying to undo Gen. Zia ul-Haq's legacy. During General Zia's rule until his death in 1988, Pakistan received substantial financial support from Saudi Arabia. Zia, in turn, "Islamicized" the country by passing laws against crimes such as blasphemy and making the jihad - or holy war - in Afghanistan a national priority.

"He won't ban signs of religiosity, like in Turkey," says Nazari. "But he's saying, 'let's get back to [Mohammed Ali] Jinna. The hardest thing was for Musharraf to say to the nation, to the religious extremists, 'We've had enough.' "

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...