More than five years since President Pervez Musharraf's coup, religious extremists are moving to the forefront in challenging Pakistan's political order.
Last week, hundreds of extremist demonstrators armed with bamboo sticks blocked a 10K road race near the finish line to protest the participation of women runners. A gun battle with police ensued, leaving several people wounded.
In a surprise to many here, the incident took place not in the conservative tribal areas, but in the country's Punjab heartland. In reaction, protesters picketed Parliament Monday, calling on the government to "save the society from Talibanization."
Through strikes, protests, and the passage of strict local ordinances, Pakistan's religious parties have grown more brazen in their challenge to the secularization central to President Musharraf's rule. Political analysts are concerned that the sidelining of mainstream parties under may be aiding the radicals in the run-up to local elections in July.
"There is a perception among the think tanks in Washington and Pakistan that both the main opposition parties should be given some room, as their absence would strengthen politically the extremist parties," says Ayesha Haroon, editor of Pakistan's The Nation newspaper. "We may see a more radical path if democratic outlets are not relaxed."
Pakistan's two previous prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, live in exile. But in a move widely seen as a positive step toward restoring democracy, Ms. Bhutto's husband was recently released from prison and plans to run her party's affairs in Pakistan.
Mr. Sharif, meanwhile, by some accounts remains barred from politics for another five years. But he still acts as leader of his mainstream party. To prevent losing his conservative constituency to the religious parties, he has thrown his backing behind a nationwide strike called this month by the religious parties.
The strikers are protesting President Musharraf's "enlightened moderation" program aimed at bringing liberal values to the society and improving the image of Pakistan.
"Pakistani people are Islamic and they will not allow the government to contradict Islamic teachings," says Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, central leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of religious extremist parties. "The enlightenment and moderation are to promote Western culture."
The religious parties gained political victories in the wake of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The MMA now rules the Frontier Province and emerged as a major coalition in the southwestern Balochistan Province.
"The mullahs have already gained political power after attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq by capitalizing anti-US sentiments and are now flexing their muscles on social issues to capture the society," says Shafqat Mehmood, a Lahore-based analyst and a columnist with the English-language newspaper, The News.
In some areas, strict Islamic laws have introduced gender segregation in schools, banned music, and prevented male medical technicians from examining women.
Activists have also defaced billboards that show women models. Religious political leaders also have plans to implement a hisba law, which would set up a religious police force along the lines of the ousted Taliban.
Now Pakistan's religious parties want to extend their gains nationwide through the local government elections scheduled for July.
"They just want to gain political mileage by distorting religion and its values, and are aiming for the local government polls to get hold of administrative control of the society," says Aamir Liaquat, the state minister for religious affairs.
The clean-shaven, young minister also hosts a popular religious TV program, ALIM ONLINE. "Musharraf's vision is to promote moderate thinking and help build a society according to Islamic values where these extremists cannot impose their archaic ideas at gunpoint."
But Musharraf's vision of enlightened moderation has many hurdles to clear in a country where extremists long enjoyed the support of successive governments and the powerful military establishment.
And Musharraf's government has been criticized by rights activists and the media for backing off previously announced reforms, including the abolishment of the draconian Hudood Ordinances, a blasphemy law, and a separate column for religion in passports.
Some argue that the "flip-flops" further strengthen extremists.
"The mullahs have been getting more powerful, partly because of anti-US sentiments and also due to the government's backtracking on liberal stances that it took on social issues. It exposes the chinks in the vision of enlightened moderation," says analyst Mehmood.
For protesting rights activists, Musharraf needs to come down hard on the extremists to cleanse the society.
"The time has come for Musharraf to take the mullahs by the beard," says activist Ambreen. "If he wants our support then he should not come under the pressures of mullahs. Only then can he steer his ship out of the currents of fundamentalism towards enlightened shores."