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Quake aid gives radical Islam a stage

Militant groups have become a vital part of Pakistan's quake relief, raising concerns that extremism will spread.

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Jamat-ud-Dawa enjoyed a reputation for effective social activism even before the earthquake, with a wide and well-funded network of clinics and schools. It insists it has no militant agenda, although many point out that its leader, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, was once the leader of Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, a jihadi group that some Indian officials suspect for the recent serial blasts in the Indian Hindu city of Varanasi, where 14 died and 40 were injured Tuesday.

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"There is no link between Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Jamat-ud-Dawa, as some people think," says Jamat-ud-Dawa's spokesman, Yayha Mujahid. "This is a religious organization to preach, educate, and propagate Islamic teachings in the society."

Many analysts welcome the participation of these radical groups. "It's a good opportunity to transform the militant workers into relief workers," says Mr. Mahmud.

"It's a process, it's a journey from extremism to liberalization to social welfare," says Arif Bahar, an analyst from Muzaffarabad. "If you are giving Hamas a margin in Palestine, why not Jamat-ud-Dawa in Kashmir?"

If such an agenda is in the cards, Jamat-ud-Dawa certainly isn't saying. It denies any such political ambitions, maintaining its only role is to provide welfare. "We do have our own opinion on different issues in Pakistan," says Mr. Mujahid. "But we don't have any ambition to take part in electoral politics like Hamas."

A greater role for Jamat-ud-Dawa is certainly not welcomed by all. "They have not said they have abandoned their path," argues Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent defense analyst based in Lahore, adding that the group's Urdu language newspapers have never officially renounced a militant ideology.

"If you look at this in a broad context ... inherently it endangers the long-term project of promoting tolerance and democracy," he says.

If radicalism does spread, there's hope it can be counterbalanced by the goodwill generated by the US because of its role in earthquake relief. Because of American efforts, 78 percent of Pakistanis have a more favorable opinion of the US, according to a November 2005 poll released by Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based nonprofit. The US, the poll says, also fared better among Pakistanis than radical Islamist groups.

On March 31 camp dwellers are scheduled to return to their villages, marking the beginning of the next phase of this tragedy. Some feel the influence of radical groups will wane, particularly if the government is efficient in its efforts to build schools and create jobs.

But Jamat-ud-Dawa and Al-Rasheed Trust see themselves as integral and lasting parts of that journey. "If the government decides to close down these camps, there is a lot more work to do in reconstruction; for example, construction of houses, mosques, and schools," says Mujahid of Jamat-ud-Dawa.

Their access to survivors may even surpass that of international agencies, some say. "NGOs are not so big in number that they can make these groups irrelevant," says Rizvi. "[Islamist groups] can go to a local mosque and give a sermon to reach the people. An NGO cannot."

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