Wednesday, June 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print


'Creeping Talibanization': Fundamentalists on rebound in Pakistan

The Washington Post

• Emboldened by an unexpectedly strong showing in national elections last fall, Islamic hard-liners are stepping up their efforts to reshape Pakistan along religious lines, alarming moderates and casting doubt on President Pervez Musharraf's ability — or willingness — to curb their power. Examples are everywhere, from parliament to campuses to the streets.

LAHORE, Pakistan — At Punjab University last month, professors of English literature were flabbergasted when they learned that a top administrator had ordered their curriculum reviewed for un-Islamic texts. Among the books deemed offensive to public morals: "Gulliver's Travels" and "Tess of the d'Urbervilles."

"It was so absurd," one of the professors recalled. "We didn't know whether to laugh or cry."

Emboldened by an unexpectedly strong showing in national elections last fall, Islamic fundamentalists are stepping up their efforts to reshape Pakistan along religious lines, alarming moderate Pakistanis and casting doubt on President Pervez Musharraf's ability — or willingness — to curb the fundamentalists' power.

One site of their new power is parliament, where a coalition of six radical Islamic parties — the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, or MMA — constitutes the main political opposition to Musharraf and is obstructing legislative business to protest his military rule.

Imposing sharia

In North-West Frontier Province, one of four provinces in Pakistan and the only one where the coalition holds undiluted power, the local legislature passed a bill earlier this month calling for imposition of sharia, or Islamic law. It is considering a companion measure that would create a force of morality police modeled after one fielded by Afghanistan's deposed Taliban. Islamic militants in the province's capital, Peshawar, have taken the law into their own hands, vandalizing satellite dishes and other things they see as symbols of Western decadence.

But even in places where the fundamentalists do not hold formal political power, they are exercising major influence.

Lahore is one of Pakistan's most cultured and cosmopolitan cities and capital of Punjab province, home to Pakistan's moderate mainstream culture and long known more for food and festivals than religious zealotry. Yet here student couples have been physically attacked on college campuses for holding hands. The bar association recently elected a lawyer from a fundamentalist party as its head. And on the streets lately, night-riding vigilantes have been splashing paint on billboard images of unveiled women.

Clerics have mounted a partially successful campaign to curb the spread of pedestrian-friendly "food streets" in Lahore's historic walled city. Such amenities, the clerics say, promote mixing of the sexes and prostitution.

"I have questioned them: Is there room for entertainment in your religion?" said Kamran Lashari, the U.S.-educated head of the Punjab Parks and Horticulture Authority, which has promoted the food-street plan. "I think they're basically joy killers."

Leaders of the religious coalition deny they are seeking to emulate the Taliban. They say they are committed to the rule of law and to working within a democratic system. "Islamization is not Talibanization," said Farid Ahmad Paracha, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest party in the religious alliance, and a member of the national assembly from Lahore. "There is no model of Iran or Afghanistan."

Paracha said while Islamic law forbids most music, "we are not going to eliminate it at once. ... We believe in educating society toward the Islamic system."

The growing strength of the religious alliance is of no small concern to the United States, which considers Pakistan a front-line ally in the war on terrorism and has praised its efforts to capture al-Qaida fighters who took refuge in the country after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

At the same time, U.S. officials remain deeply concerned about Pakistan's support for Islamic militants fighting Indian forces in Kashmir and the use of Pakistan's border areas by resurgent Taliban forces fighting the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

"A cultural change"

Among secular-minded Pakistanis — many of whom welcomed the 1999 coup that brought Musharraf to power and his subsequent pledges to transform Pakistan into a modern, progressive Islamic state — the muscle-flexing by the fundamentalists has sparked warnings that the country has instead embarked on a path of "creeping Talibanization."

"I think we are entering a new phase," said Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore resident and author of a best seller on the Taliban. "There's a cultural change happening. This is going to spread in (the frontier province) and spread in the whole country. It will certainly silence the voice of the liberals," people who favor a more secular state. Rashid places much of the responsibility for that on the military, which he says has fostered the fundamentalist groundswell as a bulwark against India and is now living with the consequences.

Traditionally, the religious parties have commanded little support among Pakistanis. Their success in last fall's elections, analysts say, was in some ways brought about by Musharraf's efforts to neutralize the country's main opposition parties, both of whose leaders — former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif — were barred from participating. The religious parties moved into the resulting vacuum, many analysts say.

Pakistan's political crosscurrents converge in Lahore, a sprawling low-rise city of about 6 million people 220 miles southeast of Islamabad. Studded with minarets and the tombs of ancient kings, Lahore has been a center of politics and intrigue for centuries, first as a center of the Mughal empire, more recently as an outpost of British colonial administration in pre-independence India.

In many ways, the British era lives on through a small but influential Westernized elite, whose generally secular outlook is evident in the city's many art galleries and a performance of "The Vagina Monologues" scheduled for later this month. One of the city's most distinctive landmarks is Aitchison College, an exclusive colonial-era boarding school — often described as "the Pakistani Eton" — that sends many graduates to top universities in the United States and Britain.

But the political and cultural winds may be shifting in Lahore. Although it is not heavily represented in the provincial government, the religious alliance wields considerable street power in the city, which serves as the headquarters of Jamaat-e-Islami.

Youth organizations linked to the religious parties are deeply involved in campus politics, and are often accused by secular-minded faculty members of promoting an atmosphere of intolerance. At Punjab University last month, militant students used wooden clubs to beat a male and female student — both from Iran — after the two were discovered sitting together on a campus veranda, according to three professors.

Masud Haq, a retired military officer and the university's registrar, said he has taken a number of steps to curb fundamentalism on campus and that one of the students who carried out last month's attack has been expelled. "I have firm control of the university," he said. "I don't allow any student or any extremist to raise his head."

But the fundamentalist influence is felt in subtler ways as well, some faculty members say. Last month, the university's academic council engaged in heated debate over whether to drop English as a requirement, as fundamentalist groups have urged.

The reading list

And then there was the flap over English literature, which began when Haq ordered a member of the department, Shahbaz Arif, to scrutinize the curriculum for offensive material.

Arif compiled a long list of examples, including Jonathan Swift's description of "a monstrous breast" in "Gulliver's Travels" and the title of Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock," according to a copy of the memo he supplied to colleagues in the English department. Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," was deemed especially offensive: "All characters sexually astray: men homosexuals; females lesbians/promiscuous," he wrote.

Arif said he did not hold extreme religious views and described himself as "very much Westernized," citing, among other things, his linguistics doctorate from Essex University in Britain. But he defended the logic of his review, asserting that "some limitations" are necessary in a conservative Islamic society.

Infuriated by what they regarded as an assault on academic freedom, professors in the department alerted the local press to the controversy. Haq, the registrar, described the text review as routine and said it would not result in any curriculum changes. He said he had ordered the review only after receiving a complaint from someone he declined to name.

"We are proud to be Muslims, but we are gentleman Muslims," he said. "We are good liberal citizens of the world."

"What's happening in the university is more or less a microcosm of the political environment of the entire country," said one English professor. "We feel a very real threat to the liberal environment."

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company


Get home delivery today!