Stuff (NZ) : Pakistan Islamists warn Musharraf risking civil war

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Pakistan Islamists warn Musharraf risking civil war

Reuters | Friday, 20 July 2007

Sitting cross-legged on a carpet in Karachi's largest Islamic school, cleric Mufti Muhammad Naeem voiced fears of civil war if President Pervez Musharraf escalates his fight against militancy in Pakistan's northwest.

"Musharraf has chosen a dangerous path," said Naeem, speaking as days of spiralling violence followed the July 10 commando assault to crush a Taliban-style movement at Islamabad's Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque.

The government said 102 people were killed in the siege and storming of the mosque complex - though many people suspect the casualty figures were far greater - intensifying Islamist anger with US ally Musharraf.

As of Thursday, close to 150 people, mostly soldiers and police, have been killed in suicide bombings and ambushes in the wake of the bloody assault in the capital.

"I think this situation could blow up in an all out civil war," said the cleric who heads the sprawling mosque-and-school complex of Jamia Banoria in Karachi's main industrial estate.

The enemy would be guerrillas and suicide bombers, drawn largely from the ethnic Pashtun belt, where support for the Taliban is rife and conservative religious attitudes and tribal loyalties run deep.

Most attacks this month have been in tribal areas of North West Frontier Province, but a suicide bomber killed 17 people in Islamabad on Tuesday night.

The Islamabad attack was the odd one out in that it targeted supporters of a judge whom Musharraf is trying to remove, but whatever the motive the sense of growing insecurity is palpable.

"Things are not going the way Musharraf had anticipated," Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a member of parliament and a senior leader of a relatively moderate religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, told Reuters.

"I will not be surprised if similar attacks follow in big cities like Karachi and Lahore."

Ideologically, even so-called "moderate" clerics agreed with the agenda of Lal Masjid's clerics, they just balked at the militant means of propagating Islam and the primacy of Islamic law, known as the sharia.

"We may disagree on the strategy and tactics but we cannot oppose their principled and ideological stand on the enforcement of sharia," Naeem said.

A moderate by the standards of his hardline peers among the Deobandi school of Islamic thought, Naeem believes people like him are losing influence, and more young Muslims from northwestern Pakistan will gravitate towards militancy.

"Why would my students listen to me if their families are being bombed in their homes," said Naeem, whose religious school or madrasa provides board and lodging for about 10,000 students, many of whom hail from tribes in the troubled northwest.

Pakistan hosts about 13,000 seminaries that run Islamic schools, providing board and lodging to more than a million students, mostly the children of poor families.

More than half of these schools are run by clerics who follow the Deobandi school of thought, and while most fulfil a social function some are regarded as little more than armed camps, recruiting students for jihadi causes.

If the operation against the Lal Masjid proves to be the opening shot in a protracted campaign against Islamist militants, clerics fear simmering impatience with the government will snap.

"There is a limit to everything. We will tolerate what the government is up to, but only to a certain extent," warned Qari Muhammad Iqbal, the main spokesman and in charge of Jamiat-ul-Uloom-il-Islamiyyah, a seminary led by hardline Deobandi clerics in Karachi.

The increasing hostility between Pakistan's military establishment and the Islamists is in sharp contrast to days of late military ruler General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Back then the madrasas run by hardliners were encouraged to provide fighters for the mujahideen, holy warriors, fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

"Now the government expects us to use our influence against militancy," Ahmed said.