In these harsh mountains near the Khyber Pass, it is difficult to tell an Afghan Taliban from a Pakistani Taliban. For those who want Islamic rule without boundaries, that is the point. For those who want to keep Pakistan under secular rule, that's a problem.
Last week local Islamic mullahs said the region known as Malakand tribal area would break away from Pakistan unless Islamic rule and sha-ria (Islamic law) is allowed by Aug. 31.
Two years ago in this Himalayan frontier, Pakistan's military sup-pressed an Islamic uprising sparked by the capture of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, by Taliban fighters.
The idea of another uprising makes Pakistani officials shudder. But to cede authority to an Islamic council could bring similar demands in other regions at a time when Islamic sentiment is high because of the Taliban's near victory in taking over Afghanistan.
And the prospect of further instability in largely Muslim Pakistan - which now has the capacity for nuclear weapons - has raised international concern.
Muhammad Alam, a solemn young mullah with luminous dark eyes, is the deputy chief in Malakand. Cross-legged on a bare floor, he says that Malakand will oppose "every law under the present system." Flanked by Malakand's president, finance secretary, other mullahs, and two Pakistani secret service men who surprised the group, he told the first Western reporters to reach him after last week's decision: "We are prepared to make physical and financial sacrifices. We will boycott the courts, the police, the schools."
Mr. Alam's threat is a small example of a "Talibanizing" trend in Pakistan - a slow drift in a more orthodox Islamic direction. For now, this Islamic movement is more popular than political. As in largely Islamic countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Indonesia, it is gaining strength because of a widespread perception by the rural and lower classes of a corrupt ruling elite that is not delivering basic social needs.
It is due in no small measure to the success of the Taliban, often referred to as a cross between an army and a church, and to the nearly 2 million Afghan refugees who have begun to call Pakistan home.
And it is matched by many middle-class families who seek a stronger sense of Islamic identity, and look for it through softer evangelical forms of Islam like the Tablighi Jamaat movement, which, while focused on spiritual and personal faith, adds to a critical mass of Islamic fervor.
"The Taliban are winners in an area of the world that desperately needs winners," says a diplomat in Islamabad. "The problem is that neither the Pakistani government nor military is looking forward enough in a way that will help them deal with what is happening in the minds of the people."
In some ways, the Islamic rise is an unintended consequence of Pakistan's support of Afghan rebels, both radical Islamic and ethnically regional, over 20 years. Pakistan's support was partly to help stabilize its rough-hewn neighbor, and partly to extend its influence north. It aided the Afghan guerrillas against Soviet occupiers. Four years ago, it backed the Taliban, who rose to quick military victories against secular rule in Kabul. In Taliban-controlled areas, the group imposed harsh social strictures on women and men, and brought law and order to a country often divided by inter-tribal rivalry.
In the short term, an activist Islamic awakening may take root more quickly in states like Pakistan, more traditionally hospitable to Islam, than in post-Soviet Central Asian states, some experts feel. "The Taliban's program is really a religious program, and religion has no boundaries," says the head of a multilateral aid agency in Islamabad. "If they are blocked in the north, then they will look south to Pakistan to spread their beliefs."
Already the message is received hospitably at high levels. Former Army chief of staff Aslam Beg extolled the character and program of the Taliban. But Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, recently retired, told the Monitor that the Taliban "are dangerous for the future of Pakistan. The Taliban won't listen to anybody. They are medievals who would medievalize our society. They are very much a problem for us. But we aren't talking about it."
Pakistan, while founded as a Muslim state, has never been religiously zealous. Unlike Shiite Iran, its religious groupings are diverse. A highly educated and Westernized upper middle class is not sympathetic to Talibanization, and chafes at even a suggestion of fundamentalism. Many of the children of the middle class are more interested in the Internet, MTV, and the London-New York scene than in Koranic interpretation. Too, it is unclear whether the military will allow a religious revival of the type the Malakand mullahs would like.
Yet the forces of fragmentation, disillusionment, and various Pakistani culture wars of which Islam is a part worry opinion leaders. "There isn't a single 'national Islamic movement,' things are too scattered for that," says Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani ambassador to the US. "What is happening is scarier. People want a local language of protest, one suitable for their own ethnic or regional group. The scenario is one of divisiveness and breakup."
"The thing to understand," says a devout believer here, "is that we Muslims take our ablutions in Pakistan, then step over the border to pray."