SALT LAKE CITY — The challenge of militant Islam seems rooted in the Arab lands of the Middle East. From such countries come hard-line terrorists committed to killing Westerners and overthrowing their civilization.
But also significant to the ultimate direction of Islam are Pakistan (population 130 million) and Indonesia (at 216 million, the world's fourth most populous nation), whose culture and religion may be Islamic but whose people aren't Arab.
Both are under siege internally from small but dangerous Islamic militant groups, but it is by no means certain they will succumb to religious extremism. For one thing, their economies are more vibrant than those of much of the Arab world and thus do not offer the same breeding ground of poverty and despair. If they become prospering, progressive, and tolerant Muslim countries, they would offer a striking contrast to the hate-filled concepts of Islam taught in the madrassahs, or religious schools, of the Arab world.
Pakistan is of particular concern to the West for a variety of reasons. (Indonesia, I'll feature in next week's column.) It is critical in the containment of Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants in neighboring Afghanistan. It is an essential US partner in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. As has recently been discovered, it has exported nuclear-arms technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya and so must be counted a player in the nuclear-proliferation stakes. Finally, if unchecked, its long-simmering hostility with India could unleash a devastating, and perhaps nuclear, war.
The US is gambling on Pakistan's current military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to act constructively in these areas while keeping Islamist fundamentalists in check.
The US relationship with General Musharraf has not always been so agreeable. After he seized power in a 1999 coup, Musharraf got the cold shoulder from the Clinton administration, which considered him undemocratic. In addition, elements of Pakistan's Army and intelligence service backed the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Musharraf became a welcome US ally, his country vital for its airspace and logistical support against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Recently, Pakistani forces have been galvanized in the hunt along the rugged Afghan border for the elusive bin Laden and Al Qaeda fighters. Though both the US and Pakistani governments deny that US forces operate on the Pakistani side of the border, there's clearly Pakistani cooperation with US units and surveillance aircraft on the Afghan side.
Musharraf also has sought more friendly relations with India, has regretted the export of nuclear technology - while professing his regime's noninvolvement - and has spoken out against intolerance, calling for a "jihad against extremism." US gratitude for his antiterrorism support has been expressed by lifting sanctions, substantial economic aid, and muted public criticism of Pakistan's nuclear indiscretions.
In the area of democracy, Musharraf is something of an enigma. He has promised to step down as Army chief by the end of this year and speaks forcefully of reforms, but he has garnered wide powers to remain president until 2007. He speaks disparagingly of Islamic militancy, but has made political concessions to extremists and hasn't moved with dispatch against Pakistan's madrassahs, which spawned many Taliban and Al Qaeda supporters.
Is Musharraf skillfully balancing dangerous political forces - he survived two recent assassination attempts - as he moves Pakistan as fast as it can go toward democracy, stability, and moderation? Or is he playing a clever game, keeping US aid and goodwill flowing while he retains his grip on power?
When Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage testified before the 9/11 commission recently, he argued that it took some time for the Bush administration to mobilize Pakistan's support against the Taliban because, initially, it had little leverage with the Musharraf regime.
Clearly that has changed. If Musharraf is the best bet for stability and reform in Pakistan, the administration should be balancing its strong public support of his stand on terrorism with strong private urging for consistent reform.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Indonesia.