Fewer Pakistanis rally to support Islamists

In the wake of an attack on a tribal-area school, Islamists are unable to stir up indignation nationwide.

For a week after missiles destroyed a madrassah, or religious school, in Pakistan's tribal belt suspected of harboring al-Qaeda officers, thousands of angry men, many armed, have stormed through the area's main towns, chanting jihad against America and endorsing suicide attacks.

But hundreds of miles away, in the cosmopolitan cities of Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, relative silence has prevailed.

The difference in response is telling, observers say. It underscores not only an important gap in understanding between the tribal areas and the rest of the country – a gulf that helps keep the area underdeveloped and prone to extremism – but an erosion of the Islamist parties' power on the national stage.

"[The Islamist parties] have used this opportunity to divert people's attention. But in other provinces, people have not responded to the call. They're fed up," says Afrasiab Khattak, former chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

It was supposed to be a raucous week. Fresh on the heels of last Monday's missile attack, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the main coalition of religious parties and the ruling entity in the semi-autonomous North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan, called for nationwide protests, hoping to stoke the fires of religious sentiment.

In Bajaur and other areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), they got what they wanted. Thousands massed for days in several towns, carrying weapons and calling for jihad. It was even announced that a suicide-bomb squad was preparing to attack the Pakistani military.

As the protests raged, militants in North Waziristan, who recently brokered a peace deal with the government, moved to solidify their power. They passed out leaflets in several towns announcing the establishment of a "Mujahideen Shura" or council to institute "Allah's law in Allah's land," according to local press reports. At least two men suspected of spying for American forces were killed in North Waziristan last week, while several other government-linked tribesmen were shot dead, allegedly for aiding the government's efforts to oust militants.

But this anger, while certainly significant, barely projected beyond the tribal zone. In Islamabad, there were hardly any protests to be seen. Lahore, a city of 10 million, saw a turnout of 500. In Karachi, 5,000 shouted slogans, hardly significant for a metropolis of 15 million.

This contrasts sharply with past protests. In January, when another militant hideout was targeted by the CIA in Bajaur, 10,000 people flooded the streets of Karachi to protest. Not long afterward, the MMA summoned 15,000 protesters in Lahore alone when the controversy over the Danish cartoons erupted, although many speculate that widespread discontent with the government, and not mere religious sentiment, brought them to the streets.

Still, many observers see it as a sign that the power of religious parties over public anger has diminished. The MMA came to power in the NWFP and Balochistan in 2002 on the promise that they would resist Western-oriented foreign policy and govern according to the tenets of Islam. But many of the MMA parties, particularly Jamaat-Ulema-Islami (JUI) – which dominates politics in the North-West Frontier Province, Balochistan, and the tribal zone – have slowly cozied up in recent months to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's military regime. Such compromises have ultimately undermined their claims to independent credentials, analysts point out. That's perhaps one reason why last week's calls for nationwide strikes were dismissed as pure political play.

"People now realize that they're just doing politics rather than really showing their mettle. They're just using the occasion," says Behroz Khan, a journalist and analyst in Peshawar who writes for Pakistan's The News. Government officials last week echoed this refrain.

"The MMA has already seen that people have rejected their strike call a day before and will not take to the streets today," Muhammad Ali Durrani, the information minister, told a press conference last week. Pakistani authorities had suspected the madrassah of harboring al-Qaeda officers.

Leaders of Jamaat Islami, the MMA's central party, deny these accusations, saying their power is as strong as ever.

"The people believe in Jamaat Islami because ... they have strong leadership and commitment," says Siraj-ul-Haq, a Jamaat Islami leader and member of the provincial assembly in the NWFP. He added that if protests have been muted, it is only because the MMA is working slowly toward its goal of building a nationwide protest movement.

"We are sure we will succeed to organize a new agitation throughout the country," he says.

Certainly, Pakistanis at large condemn last week's missile strike, arguing that the militants should have been arrested. But street protests will continue to founder because, besides the MMA's political weakness, many Pakistanis are only mildly concerned with events in FATA, say analysts. As far as many Pakistanis are concerned, the tribal zone may as well be a different country.

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