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Moderate voices from a Pakistani city

In Kohat, near Pakistan's restive tribal areas, many say the remote border regions need more government engagement to curb rising extremism. Part 2 of three.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 2007

Kohat, Pakistan

At the end of March, extremists blew a shutter off Ansar Naeem's small shop just outside Pakistan's tribal belt, which sells music CDs and movies – considered a sin by the Taliban and their supporters.

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But Mr. Naeem doesn't heed the message of bombs. In a silent but powerful rebuke, he opened his shop right back up again. "I cannot abandon my business because of that," says Naeem. "I'm not scared."

Even as a wave of such attacks ripples across Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan, leaving dozens of music and video stores in ashes, customers are sending their own messages of defiance. On a recent afternoon, there were more of them than could fit in Naeem's tiny shop. And police, who quickly rounded up the culprits, say the attacks are fostering greater civilian policing.

On a larger level, the fate of Naeem's shop seems inextricably linked with that of Pakistan itself: While Taliban-linked violence expands in areas of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) like Swat – where a paucity of earning potential and education has given rise to powerful extremist clerics like Maulana Fazlullah – so too are pockets of civilian resistance like Kohat, a model district to Swat's south.

Only increased civic engagement, propelled by the broad and moderate middle class, can turn the rising tide of Islamic extremism, many observers say. But because the administration of President Pervez Musharraf often fails to support these democratic forces, many are concerned that liberal voices will remain a silent majority.

And in the frontier region, those voices have barely emerged. Pakistanis, for the most part, are against extremism. But under a barrage of threats and actual gunfire, few are willing to resist vocally. The Taliban thrive on both this public silence and the vacuums of support from the state, observers say.

The majority is not so silent in Kohat, a district of more than 560,000, although it sits just outside the troubled Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in an area of the NWFP increasingly prone to suicide bombings and sectarian violence. People here have certainly heard of Mr. Fazlullah, an influential cleric in Swat who, police say, has connections to terrorist groups. But his influence is limited, and there are no other radical clerics like him.

Statistics suggest why: Residents here have the highest per capita income per day in the province, according to 2003 government figures. An impressive 62 percent of the urban population and 44 percent of the overall population are educated, ranking it third out of 24 districts for adult literacy rates in the NWFP. Even 45 percent of women and girls are educated in Kohat city – rare in this region.

Residents say that because the city of Kohat has been a garrison town for more than a century, the district has long had the Army's presence to help ensure a stream of employment, money for schools, and stability. Certainly there are problems typical of the NWFP as well.