Competing visions for Pakistan's future

Police yesterday arrested over 30 militants, including alleged Al Qaeda members.

He is the point man in Pakistan's war on terrorism, a difficult job by any measure.

And Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider isn't raising expectations. He says it will take years of effort and severe punishments to restore law and order to Pakistan.

As a frontline state in America's war in Afghanistan, Pakistan remains a vital staging area for both military and humanitarian missions. Any significant disruption of stability here could change the course of the entire war.

That is precisely the motive behind all the recent terrorist incidents here, including the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, the massacre of Shiite Muslims in Rawalpindi, and the bombing of a Protestant church, says General Haider.

"To fight these people you have to use a heavy hand with them, and it takes time," says Haider, with his narrow eyes and slick black hair. "We need the world's support and understanding and patience. They have to help us ban poverty, to have a better education in the country, and find employment for people, and to help our security situation."

Yesterday, Pakistani police arrested more than 30 Islamic militants, including alledged Al Qaeda members, in raids in Faisalabad and Lahore. Meanwhile, the government this week announced it has deported hundreds of foreign students this month from religious schools, seen as recruiting grounds for Islamic militant groups.

In his ongoing crackdowns, President Pervez Musharraf is walking a thin line between restoring order and violating civil liberties. On one hand, he is criticized for failing to strike terrorist groups hard enough. On the other side, he is criticized by civil libertarians and mainstream political parties for restricting political-party activity and rallies in the run-up to national elections this fall.

Implementing these often-contradictory goals will require a new vision for what Pakistan should become.

"The challenge that we are facing in Pakistan is choosing whether we are moving toward becoming a theocracy or becoming a liberal democracy," says Afrasiab Khattak, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Peshawar. "These people who are striking against the state are using violence, but the state should not violate the law itself, because that can breed more violence."

Compounding the difficulty of Musharraf's efforts are the advantages that a small band of terrorists can have against a global superpower and its friends. While Pakistan has all the tools of the state to crush terrorism, the terrorists merely have to lie low and choose a few high-profile targets. This makes them look more powerful and numerous than they are, and inflicts painful wounds on the Pakistani state's image of control.

For his part, Haider says that Pakistan does have a vision for itself, set out by Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. "We believe in moderate Islam, not in political Islam," says Haider.

Like many Pakistanis, Haider says the rise of religious extremists in Pakistan was the result of America's proxy war against the Soviets who invaded neighboring Afghanistan. With no hint of sarcasm, Haider says Pakistan received "four gifts" from the Afghan war: foreign-supported religious extremists, a booming narcotics trade, a thriving gun culture, and millions of Afghan refugees who never went home.

"President Musharraf's government, even before the 11th of September, took very strong measures against terrorism," he says. "We are continuously working to tackle all these groups and to bring about a good law and order situation.... But obviously these people have been on the ground here for the past 20 years. It will require a few months to bring everything under the state control."

At the same time, Haider says his government has been showing some new flexibility with extremists. "Many of these people who were part of the parties, now are getting back to the government, saying ... 'give us an opportunity to give up membership in these parties and lead the life of a responsible citizen.' But those people who ... wish to challenge the government, and indulge in crime or terrorism, will be dealt with severely."

Government critics say ridding the country of extremism will take more than invoking the 55-year-old vision of Jinnah.

"Even though the top hierarchy of these outfits are in jail, there's a cadre that has developed across the board, united by a cause," says Mansoor Taamnan, a former member of parliament under the center-right Pakistan Muslim League. "We are looking for corrective changes in law and order, but we need more than that to face this disaffection. We need a counter vision to these extremists, and we don't have that right now."

Others say Pakistan should move more quickly toward addressing the "root causes" of violence, including poverty, illiteracy, and the growing prominence of religious seminaries, or madrassahs, which are often the only place where poor rural children can receive an education.

Haider says that combating illiteracy is one of his top priorities but that Pakistan could never rid itself of madrassas, even if it wanted to. "If we had 100 percent resources to organize a general education system for all Pakistani children, some people by choice would go to madrassas to learn about religion," he says, adding that some madrassas offer excellent schooling.

Over the short term, however, Haider recognizes that his attention must remain focused on reining in terrorist groups, and even individuals who carry out suicide bombing missions, such as the attack on the Protestant International Church in Islamabad. "The church attack was an unfortunate incident and we are doing our very best to see the motive behind this and the culprits behind this," he says.

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