Musharraf's belated crackdown
July 6, 2007: Boston Globe
IN THE PAST few months, Pakistan's president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, has come in for considerable criticism, much of it justified. He looked like an awkward autocrat when he suspended Pakistan's chief justice out of fear that the jurist's independence might harm Musharraf politically in the run-up to elections later this year. But in his handling of the radical clerics who recently barricaded themselves inside Islamabad's Red Mosque along with nearly 2,000 madrassa students and hardcore followers, Musharraf has thus far managed to avoid the perils of impatience and appeasement.
The clerics who provoked the showdown in Islamabad were throwing down a challenge to the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis who want to preserve a moderate practice of Islam in a democratic, pluralist state.
For several months, Maulana Abdul Aziz, the senior cleric behind the current crisis, and his brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, had been sending vigilante vice squads onto the streets of Islamabad to enforce their version of Islamic law. Women accused of being prostitutes were abducted. Stores selling music were trashed. Cassettes and DVDs defined as immoral were burned in gaudy bonfires.
Until the siege of the Red Mosque, partisans of Pakistan's secular political parties had castigated Musharraf for indulging the extremists in the capital city. The critics charged, with good reason, that Musharraf waited too long to crack down on the two Taliban-like clerics because he envisioned them as a counterforce to the traditional secular parties. The critics contrasted Musharraf's attitude toward the chief justice with his months-long toleration of the antics of the two clerical brothers and their fanatical followers.
The chief justice, after all, had been upholding Pakistani law; the radical clerics were seeking to replace such secular legislation with their own version of Islamic law. Their vigilante actions were a dagger aimed at the heart of Pakistani democracy and the rule of law.
Last week, when Musharraf finally sent soldiers to surround the Red Mosque and demand that the clerics surrender and allow their madrassa students to come out, he demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the siege's political and psychological ramifications. He told fellow officers he did not want them simply to storm the mosque compound and leave great numbers of dead bodies to be seen worldwide on television.
Wisely, Musharraf has tried to avoid transforming the local Taliban into sympathetic victims. He has refrained from granting their fellow fanatics yet another recruiting tool for new jihadists -- who would then wage holy war not against foreign crusaders, but against the religious moderation of most Pakistanis and against the Pakistani state.