At the end of March, extremists blew a shutter off Ansar Naeem's small shop just outside Pakistan's tribal belt, which sells music CDs and movies – considered a sin by the Taliban and their supporters.
But Mr. Naeem doesn't heed the message of bombs. In a silent but powerful rebuke, he opened his shop right back up again. "I cannot abandon my business because of that," says Naeem. "I'm not scared."
Even as a wave of such attacks ripples across Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan, leaving dozens of music and video stores in ashes, customers are sending their own messages of defiance. On a recent afternoon, there were more of them than could fit in Naeem's tiny shop. And police, who quickly rounded up the culprits, say the attacks are fostering greater civilian policing.
On a larger level, the fate of Naeem's shop seems inextricably linked with that of Pakistan itself: While Taliban-linked violence expands in areas of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) like Swat – where a paucity of earning potential and education has given rise to powerful extremist clerics like Maulana Fazlullah – so too are pockets of civilian resistance like Kohat, a model district to Swat's south.
Only increased civic engagement, propelled by the broad and moderate middle class, can turn the rising tide of Islamic extremism, many observers say. But because the administration of President Pervez Musharraf often fails to support these democratic forces, many are concerned that liberal voices will remain a silent majority.
And in the frontier region, those voices have barely emerged. Pakistanis, for the most part, are against extremism. But under a barrage of threats and actual gunfire, few are willing to resist vocally. The Taliban thrive on both this public silence and the vacuums of support from the state, observers say.
The majority is not so silent in Kohat, a district of more than 560,000, although it sits just outside the troubled Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in an area of the NWFP increasingly prone to suicide bombings and sectarian violence. People here have certainly heard of Mr. Fazlullah, an influential cleric in Swat who, police say, has connections to terrorist groups. But his influence is limited, and there are no other radical clerics like him.
Statistics suggest why: Residents here have the highest per capita income per day in the province, according to 2003 government figures. An impressive 62 percent of the urban population and 44 percent of the overall population are educated, ranking it third out of 24 districts for adult literacy rates in the NWFP. Even 45 percent of women and girls are educated in Kohat city – rare in this region.
Residents say that because the city of Kohat has been a garrison town for more than a century, the district has long had the Army's presence to help ensure a stream of employment, money for schools, and stability. Certainly there are problems typical of the NWFP as well.
"There is lack of justice, lack of security," says Abdul Rauf, president of the Bar Association in Kohat, the district capital and home to some 40,000. "The lack of job opportunities is another thing. We don't have an industrial base here."
But because education and income rates are comparatively high for the district, residents are not only ignoring the Taliban's call but actively fighting back, Mr. Rauf and others say.
Mussarad Shaffi is proud proof. A local politician and lawyer, she runs a women's crisis center in the city that offers shelter and legal services for victims of domestic violence. Mrs. Shaffi believes in spreading a broader vision of religion and women's rights, even though it threatens her life.
"I'm doing my job at the crisis center, and for that I'm facing so many threats," says Shaffi. "Our men say women who go out of the house are bad women."
But Shaffi and others say that, even with the advantages their city has, there is only so much they can do.
Her concern helps illuminate a troubling observation made by many here and throughout Pakistan: The Army-led administration does not support the democratic institutions that can invigorate an anti-extremist movement. For President Musharraf to support Pakistan's liberal forces, his critics say, he would have to share power with political rivals – a compromise Musharraf is unwilling to make.
Ironically, the only power-sharing his secular, US-backed regime does accommodate is with the religious parties. Those groups, say observers, are the very same forces many blame for stoking extremism in the first place.
"There are two extremes in this country: the elite politicians and their liberal views, and the religious forces," says a police official in Kohat city, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Between the two extremes, there is the leaderless majority. Both sides of the extremes have guns – big guns. The public has no guns. How can you ask them to stand up? But they should. Their children's future depends on it."
As Musharraf suggested to military graduates in April, the Army continues to see itself, not people power, as the central barrier against militancy: "You as officers of the Pakistan Army have to guarantee security of the motherland. … Our arms are the guarantee of peace."
In contrast, Rauf and other observers throughout the province insist that if empowered, a civilian government backed by liberal political parties could contain and begin reversing extremism in a matter of months. Time, he fears, may be running out.
"Suppose the Taliban manage to get to this place with their rocket launchers – what do you expect the police to do?" says the police official. "If [the Taliban] sit on these mountains and fire rockets at us, we have no rockets to fire back."
• Second of three parts. Thursday: Girls' schools become targets.