Musharraf attacks Islamic groups in Pakistan in response to bombs in Britain

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Shockwaves from the bomb blasts in London’s underground system on July 7 were felt thousands of miles away in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan, as well. No sooner was it discovered that three of the four bombers were of Pakistani origin, than all the accusing fingers were pointing at Pakistan.

Never mind that most of the bombers were born and raised in Britain and that their alienation from British society may well have had something to do with their acts, or likewise Britain’s aggressive military policies in the Muslim world: all this was conveniently ignored. The fact that some of them had visited Pakistan for a few weeks was sufficient to pin the blame squarely on Pakistan: it was Pakistan’s mad mullahs at the primitive madrassas who were responsible for turning these boys into bombers, thundered the British establishment. British prime minister Tony Blair demanded that general Pervez Musharraf deal with the terrorists immediately. The few voices of dissent–”Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, and the Guardian newspaper, for instance–”were accused of justifying the bombers’ "despicable acts".

Musharraf’s government wasted no time in rounding up the usual suspects. A number of madrassas were raided and more than 200 ulama arrested throughout the country. In Islamabad, the Lal Masjid and its attached madrassa were subjected to a going-over simply because they are less than a kilometer from the headquarters of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI: the police (on orders from the headman himself) not only attacked the mosque and its attached madrassa but also beat up girl-students, some so viciously that one died; scores were injured. No one said what the madrassa or its girl-students have to do with the bombs in London. The attack was clearly intended to show the outside world that Musharraf is serious about dealing with "religious extremists". The Lal Masjid’s misfortune is that it is in Islamabad, and thus a convenient scapegoat.

The police brutality led to massive protests in several parts of the country; as a result a number of police officers were transferred from Islamabad. Under Musharraf’s enlightened moderation, while this mayhem was underway in Islamabad, newspapers and magazines that project the Islamic point of view, however mildly, were attacked in most cities. True to form, the police exploited the situation to the full. Not only did they arrest newspaper editors and writers, but shops that sell such papers and magazines were also raided; their owners were threatened with arrest if they did not cough up thousands of rupees in bribes. Even so, Abdul Latif Abu Shamil, editor of the Friday Special magazine, part of the Urdu daily Jasarat newspaper, was picked up by police and has not been seen in public since; nor does his family know his whereabouts. Other newspapers and magazines, among them Takbeer, Zarb-e Momin and Junood have also been subjected to government pressure and intimidation. They are accused of promoting sectarianism and terrorism. Both charges are false; their real crime is that they are critical of American policies in the Muslim world and frequently report US crimes against Muslims. This is what the Musharraf regime calls "extremism".

Musharraf’s prompt reactions, however, have not succeeded in getting him off the hook. British prime minister Tony Blair demanded that Musharraf do more to crack down on "terrorist elements" in Pakistan, prompting a rare challenge from the Pakistani "strongman" himself, who mustered the courage to say that the problem lies in Britain, not Pakistan. That, however, has not solved his problems, either internally or externally. Deep cracks have appeared in his carefully crafted image as a strongman. In mid-July he took the police chiefs to task for not doing their job properly. Some of them pointed out that whenever they arrest any "extremist elements", within days someone from the ISI or another intelligence agency calls to demand that they be released. Musharraf told them to ignore such calls from the intelligence agencies; that he was giving them a direct order to arrest such people. The argument points to a serious problem within the Pakistani establishment: the ISI is effectively a state within a state, answerable to no one. It now appears that it is not answerable even to Musharraf himself. He must be a very worried man.

Musharraf’s American friends have also been piling on the pressure. Although he boasts that he has a personal rapport with US president George Bush, he has suffered two setbacks recently. Zalmay Khalilzad, the departing US ambassador to Afghanistan, delivered a parting blow before he left Kabul: he accused Pakistan of harbouring al-Qa’ida and Taliban leaders. Other Afghan officials have made similar allegations, reducing Musharraf to calling Afghan president Hamid Karzai repeatedly to assure him that this is not the case. The Afghans are not convinced, confident in the knowledge that they have the support of the Americans on this point. When reminded of a statement by CIA director Porter Goss to the effect that his agency knows exactly where Osama bin Laden is but cannot act because of sovereignty issues, Musharraf said in an interview with US television channel ABC, which was broadcast on July 20, that if the CIA has such intelligence it should share it with Pakistan so that Pakistan can act on it. He added, however, that he would not allow foreign forces to enter Pakistan’s territory.

In the same interview Musharraf was pilloried further. When he boasted that most Pakistanis are not extremists but moderates, he was asked to explain how he reconciles this with the fact that more than 50 percent of Pakistanis support Osama bin Laden, according to a recent survey. "I think exactly that they are opposed to US policy, and they see him [Osama] as a person who is fighting the policies of United States," he said. "But if you were to take a poll and ask, are they in favour of terrorist attacks anywhere in the world like 9/11 or London, I am reasonably sure the poll will indicate otherwise." He went on to say that the Americans have a distorted view of Pakistan, and see it as a land of extremists.

He then uttered a gem that must rank among the most fantastic claims ever uttered by any Pakistani ruler. Explaining how he justifies his claim that the vast majority of Pakistanis are moderate, he said, "the US must understand that the vast majority here are moderate. If they were extremists I wouldn’t be popular here" (italics added).

Clearly his advisors are keeping him in the dark about the true state of affairs. His differences with ISI also seem to have been exposed. But even more worrying is the fact that, despite his total subservience to the US, the latter has chosen to embrace India. This was seen clearly during the visit of the Indian prime minister to Washington last month. Bush not only lavished praise on his Indian guest but also laid out a state dinner in his honour: only the fifth such meal in Bush’s five years in office. In June the US and India signed a defence agreement, leaving Pakistan completely out in the cold. This was capped by an announcement at a joint press conference by Singh and Bush on July 18: the US has agreed to provide nuclear technology to India, because it accepts that India’s nuclear programme "peaceful". This is in sharp contrast to the US’s attitude to the nuclear-power programmes of Pakistan and other Muslim countries, such as Iran, which are accused of trying to develop nuclear weapons capability, even without evidence to support the accusation.

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