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A Turkish path for Pakistan?

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

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2002


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

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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?

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.