Bearded and turbaned, they represent the face of militant Islam. Some are staunch supporters of the Taliban, with whom they share a conservative view of how to live a pure Islamic life in a Western-dominated world. Some are even mentors of Taliban leaders and quick to brag of their friendship with Osama bin Laden.
They are the newly elected leaders of Pakistan's most conservative state, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), along the border of Afghanistan, that could prove critical in America's ongoing war on terrorism.
Elected by a landslide on Oct. 10, during the country's first national elections since a military coup in 1999, the six religious parties that make up the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), or United Action Council, have sent shock waves through the Pentagon with pledges of banning foreign troops from operating on Pakistani soil.
"We want good relations with the United States and the Western nations, but we also want our sovereignty," says Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Jamiat-e ulema-e Islam, one of the main religious parties that now controls the frontier state. "We have said we don't want Pakistani bases and Pakistani territory to be used by foreign troops to attack our neighbors."
For US diplomats, pledges such as these have the potential to undermine America's efforts to catch terrorists and former Taliban members who may be hiding there. While few believe the MMA is capable of blocking US law enforcement activities in Pakistan, others say the frontier state could be the center of renewed resistance both to America's war on terrorism and to Pakistan's pro-US government.
"My guess is that not too much is going to happen" to alter Pakistan's compliance in the war on terrorism, says Dennis Kux, a former US diplomat posted to Pakistan and now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "The central government controls a lot when it comes to such matters, such as intelligence gathering and so on." If the state interferes with the antiterrorism effort, he adds, "I'm sure the central government will have something to say about that."
In past elections, the religious parties tended to be their own enemies, divided along class and sectarian lines and determined to keep their Islamic rivals from reaching power. But this time, united in opposition to America's war in Afghanistan, the religious parties have garnered some 57 seats, the third-largest bloc in Pakistan's 342-seat national assembly, and control of two of Pakistan's four provinces.
"The MMA are looking [like] the best of the parties, because they at least are speaking on their principles," says Fakher Imam, a former speaker of Parliament and member of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League party. No MMA supporter - he lost to a MMA candidate in the recent vote - Mr. Imam says, "It will depend on how they cope with the challenges of governance. If they can somehow moderate their social agenda, if they can administer better justice, better garbage removal, and the like, then the people won't let them go."
Yet secularists like Imam say that the rise of religious parties is, nonetheless, a warning sign for Pakistan. The Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam, in particular, has enjoyed close ties with the Taliban. Most of the Taliban's top leaders were graduates of madrassas run by the JUI's two factions, and the leader of one of those factions, Maulana Sami-ul Haq, keeps a picture of himself and Osama bin Laden in his office. The Jamaat-e Islami, meanwhile, was one of the founding sponsors of the Kashmiri terrorist group, Hizbul Mujahideen, although Jamaat has severed its relations.
But the elation that followed the recent election has been replaced by a certain befuddlement. The NWFP government's first act this month was to ban alcohol. Islamists applauded, but critics noted that alcohol had already been banned in the 1970s. In other matters, the religious parties seem to be stepping back from their hard-line speeches as they see the limits of their power. They are talking in cool tones of the day-to-day work of running schools, law enforcement, and promoting the economy.
Some actions, however, have a distinctly Taliban feel to them. In Peshawar, cinema owners were forced to tear down billboards deemed obscene, and cinemas that play pornographic films were shut down. State officials have also forced all public bus drivers to remove cassette players and destroy music cassettes, and also talk of changing the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday, the traditional day of Islamic prayer. More ominous, state police have begun to lodge new cases of blasphemy against those who are thought to have offended the Holy Koran or the name of Allah. Human rights advocates argue that such blasphemy laws are often used as retribution against political enemies.
"It was not anger that got us elected, it was unity," says Qazi Hussein Ahmed, national president of Jamaat-e Islami, a party that has its roots in middle-class urban Pakistan and gathered force during the pro-Islamic student movements of the late 1970s. "We are united for the first time on one election agenda, and we want to implement the Constitution so that something of the national character will be restored."
Yet despite claims of unity, there are some signs of cracks. Most of NWFP's budget comes from the federal treasury, so there are likely to be intense disagreements on how to spend what little money the state has for the variety of Islamic reforms that the religious parties hope to enact. Further, divisions between Sunni and Shiite sects - and between rural and urban constituencies - could develop rapidly.