Pakistan tilts toward extremism?

Musharraf this week said he will still support the US terror war, despite Islamic parties' election success.

Pakistan's masses have sent a clear signal of simmering resentment over the US war on terror which is playing out in their own backyard.

The Muttahida Maklis-i-Amal (MMA) – an alliance of five fundamentalist Islamic parties that opposes the US hunt for Al Qaeda terrorists here and wants to impose strict sharia or Muslim law – surpassed even the wildest of expectations in last Thursday's general elections. The MMA swept the vote in two provinces bordering Afghanistan, Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier Province, and made significant gains nationwide to become the third largest political block in the 342-seat National Assembly.

Pakistan's fundamentalist parties have never won more than 10 percent of the vote in past elections. Their remarkable showing this time bodes ill for continued US-Pakistan operations in the tribal belt that borders Afghanistan, and may indicate that Pakistan as a whole is becoming more extremist, say analysts.

"It gives the sense that this is an enterprise that is going somewhere," says Abbas Rashid, a respected political columnist here. "Today they [Islamic fundamentalists] take the frontier. Tomorrow, who knows?"

President Pervez Musharraf, the general who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and imposed military rule, has heralded the Oct. 10 polls as a key step in Pakistan's return to democracy. But analysts say Mr. Musharraf opened a political vacuum, which the fundamentalists waltzed into, when he banned major political figures such as ex-Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from running.

The moderate general, who is known both personally and politically to oppose extremist Islamic groups, may now be regretting his decision to let the religious parties run, some analysts say.

"He has got the entire frontier now controlled by the Mullahs," says Asfandyar Wali Khan, who was president of the liberal Awami National Party in the Northwest Frontier Province until he resigned after his party's crushing election defeat. "How is Musharraf going to work with them? This is the million dollar question."

Pakistan long supported the former Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, which was close to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and banned women from most work and school. But immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks on Washington and New York, Musharraf sided with the Bush administration, turning into a crucial ally in the war on terror and America's military effort to drive the Taliban from power.

Now MMA leaders intend to use their large voting block in congress to force Musharraf to pull back his cooperation with Washington. The MMA says it doesn't want US forces on Pakistani soil.

"This policy will be discussed in the parliament, and all policy will be formed through the parliament," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, who leads Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest party in the MMA alliance.

On Sunday, the president reassured the US, which believes that Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives are hiding in Pakistan, that he will continue to help with the war on terror.

A faction of the Pakistan Muslim League that supports Musharraf won the largest block of seats in parliament. The European Union, which observed the elections, complained that Musharraf's government made clear and questionable efforts to affect the vote outcome. No party won a majority, and a ruling coalition has yet to be determined for the new parliament, which opens Nov. 1.

The MMA's success reflects the present international backdrop. Many Pakistanis say that American foreign policy harms Muslims around the world, citing the looming possibility of war in Iraq and the widely held view that US Mideast policy unfairly and unilaterally supports Israel.

"Hatred is increasing because of America's foreign policies," said Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a senior member of the MMA alliance. "Wherever there are Muslims in the world, if America continues its present policies, it will create problems."

Some MMA leaders support a return to power in Afghanistan of the fugitive Taliban leadership. Mr. Sami-ul-Haq, for example, runs religious schools that sent hundreds of young men to fight alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Another MMA leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, maintained close ties to the Taliban and was accused of smuggling fuel to its leadership after an international embargo blocked most trade with the government.

The MMA victory may have immediate social consequences in Pakistan. The tribal belt that borders Afghanistan was already Pakistan's most conservative region, where most women wear head-to-toe covering burqas when they venture outside the home. Alliance leaders now say they will ban suggestive television programs and films in the frontier zones they will control, and plan to oblige people to live according to strict sharia law.

However, most Pakistanis are moderate in their religious beliefs and lifestyles, and there is some concern over the extent to which the MMA leadership may try to "Talibanize" Pakistan.

In a country where the great majority of the 140 million people are desperately poor, and traditionally have been ruled by a wealthy elite, some say they voted for the MMA because it supports the poor. "I do not support terrorists, but I do like Islamic law for Pakistan," says Waheed Ahmed, a villager from the populous Punjab province, who cast his vote for the religious parties. "Nawaz and (Bhutto) just stole from us, the religious parties come from the poor, and they will help us."

But antiextremist politicians fear the election success of the MMA will spark fear internationally that Pakistan is leaning dangerously toward fundamentalism, which could cut off the country at a time when it dearly needs friends abroad.

"We have to live according to the world game," says Mehmood Khan Achakzai, the leader of a moderate party that campaigned in Baluchistan's tribal belt and won few seats. "We cannot have a Pakistan in isolation [from] the world."

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