Pakistan zeroes in on zealots

The standoff at the Red Mosque represents the rise of moderate Muslims against violent, vigilante Islam.

When the violent strand of Islam eventually collapses of its inherent contradiction, that day may have been foreseen in the siege at Pakistan's Red Mosque. If the military uses wise tactics to end the siege well, civilization will be the victor.

The standoff began after the mosque's radical jihadists began to escalate their terrorizing of citizens in the capital, Islamabad. For months, the Muslim militants had been sending self-appointed vice squads onto the streets to enforce their strict version of Islamic law. They accused women of being prostitutes, burned music discs, and abducted police. Pakistani society, which prefers democracy over sharia vigilantism, was fed up.

When the military finally decided to crack down last week, the militants showed what they were really made of: They are using women as hostages. And one of their leaders, senior cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, tried to sneak out of the compound in women's clothing, covered in a burqa and wearing high heels. For all of his past sermonizing on keeping the sexes separate, his attempted escape in drag revealed the underlying farce of Islamic holy war.

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The mosque and its religious schools (madrassas) are a key part of Pakistan's long history of dealing with militant Islam, going back to its support of Islamic fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and then the post-Soviet Taliban regime.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, however, President Pervez Musharraf has tried to break the link between the military's intelligence services and Muslim radicals. The Red Mosque siege represents a firm, public stand by the government to weed out the militants before they threaten Pakistani society itself.

If Mr. Musharraf succeeds in ending the standoff with little bloodshed, the victory will send a strong message to anyone trying to turn Pakistan into "Talistan."

Other stark standoffs between violent, totalitarian Islam and civilized society are currently happening in several Muslim lands. Lebanon's military is trying to end the hold of Islamic militants on a Palestinian refugee camp. Secular Palestinian leaders have successfully isolated the Sunni radical group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And in Saudi Arabia, more and more citizens are challenging the mutawiyin, or the nonuniformed religious militia who enforce the radical Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam on public behavior.

Pakistan has many more radical groups it will need to confront, especially along the border with Afghanistan and at dozens of Muslim seminaries that teach violent tactics. The nation's problem is compounded by the bungled attempts of Musharraf, who is both president and chief of the army, to restore a full democracy in Pakistan after his eight years in power.

So far, he has shown restraint during their siege of the Red Mosque, a move that only helps to show the militants' moral weakness and allows more of those holed up inside to think twice and escape. He has the quiet support of much of Pakistan's political opposition.

This crisis also represents, in a microcosm, an attempt by the world's 1 billion, mainly moderate Muslims to stand up to zealots. Al Qaeda and other such groups have lost their "war" to create a united Muslim state because of their violent, antidemocratic tactics. It only takes a civilized response to reveal their lack of appeal.

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