DESPITE vocal opposition from militant Muslims, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto arrived in Cairo for the United Nations-sponsored International Conference on Population and Development this week, treading a fragile line between the cultural sensitivities of an Islamic society and the need to address the economic consequences of unchecked population growth.
Pakistan's 3 percent annual population expansion has set back economic growth for several years; at that rate, the country's population will double from 130 million to 260 million in about two decades. But the country's Islamic preachers criticize the UN conference on the basis that it amounts to a first step in imposing an `unIslamic' agenda around the globe.
Ms. Bhutto appealed to delegates at the conference to avoid drafting a plan that would be viewed by some as a ``universal social charter seeking to impose adultery, abortion, sex education, and other matters on individual societies and religions which have their own social ethos.... The world needs consensus. It does not need a clash of cultures,'' she said.
Many government officials here are hoping that Bhutto's presence in Cairo as the modern-day young leader of an Islamic country will raise the country's profile internationally and aid in its bid for additional international assistance.
Resistance from conservative Islamists in Pakistan has triggered fresh concerns among some government planners that the next target for criticism would be the country's much-needed population-control programs.
The government accepts Islamic groups' concerns - especially those regarding sex education, homosexuality, and premarital sex - as being legitimate, and concurs that the conference should not grant a stamp of approval to any of those. The government has assured Islamic groups that it would not support any final proposals that are unacceptable to Muslims.
But such assurances were not enough to stop the criticism against Bhutto.
Islamic clergymen and their small minority of supporters in parliament united last week in protest against reports of her plans to go to Cairo, and demanded that Islamabad join other Islamic countries in boycotting the conference. Later, at least one leading cleric warned that if Bhutto went to Cairo, the Islamic parties would decide to support an antigovernment campaign led by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
The rift has once again exposed the controversies over checking the country's rapidly burgeoning population. Earlier this year the government launched a multimillion dollar ``Social Action Programme'' with the intent of improving some of Pakistan's key social problems.
Surprisingly, there has been very little resistance from Islamic parties against those efforts.
``Many people in this country are beginning to understand the difficulties associated with rampant population growth,'' one senior government official said privately, adding that all of the major Islamic sects have accepted the legitimacy of contraceptives such as condoms and birth-control pills, and therefore would not oppose the government's program.
In response to a question over opposition to the Cairo conference, however, the official argued that the forum had been widely seen as more of a clash between Islam and the West.
``Muslims feel that the conference is another effort to corner them so that they would change their lives according to Western standards. That is the heart of the problem,'' the official said.