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Pak radicals seek to Talibanise border areas

Peshawar, May 22 (Reuters): Curbs on music and videos, destruction of posters featuring women, and a complete ban on alcohol.

Barely 18 months after Afghanistan’s hardline Taliban rulers fell from power, radical Islamists are seeking to emulate their strict social controls in a region across the border in Pakistan. “It is part of the mandate from the people to contribute towards the formation of a sound Islamic society,” said Akram Durrani, chief executive of North West Frontier Province.

“We will not allow unethical and immoral acts in society.”

The moves are alarming moderate Pakistanis, rights groups and proponents of the US-led war on terror.

Last week, provincial police detained at least 150 people, mostly owners of shops selling music CDs and videos, as part of the local government’s “anti-obscenity” drive.

Islamists from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six hardline Islamic groups, swept to power in North West Frontier Province after national elections in October.

Soon afterwards, the MMA banned the playing of music on public transport. It has since banned medical examinations of women by male doctors, male coaches for women athletes and male journalists from covering women’s sports.

Most recently it cancelled licences for the sale of liquor to non-Muslim foreigners. One lawmaker called for veils to be made compulsory for women, although it appears unlikely the provincial government will attempt to implement that.

Rights activists are alarmed by what they call the “Talibanisation” of society and fear such laws will strengthen Islamists in the sensitive border region with Afghanistan. “The MMA is the Pakistani edition of the Taliban,” said Afrasiab Khattack, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

The MMA’s rise in North West Frontier Province and neighbouring Baluchistan has raised concerns that it could undermine the US-led hunt for the Taliban and their al Qaida allies blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on US cities.

However, analysts say that while the provincial government is sympathetic to the Taliban, it has little say in the affairs of the tribal region bordering Afghanistan where large numbers of Taliban and al Qaida remnants are thought to be hiding. The semi-autonomous tribal area is directly controlled by the federal government of President Pervez Musharraf, who has vowed full support for the US-led “war on terror”.

Critics say the MMA has done little to improve living standards since taking office and is using strict Islamic laws in an attempt to placate its more fervent supporters. But unlike the Taliban, there is something half-hearted about the way the MMA has gone about enforcing its rulings.

Music and video shops near Peshawar’s Qissa Khawani bazaar can still sell all types of audio and video cassettes ranging from local folk music to suggestive Indian songs and English rock. While they are not allowed to advertise their wares on the street, they can still put up the posters, but back to front, so they can only be seen from inside the shop.

“Our shops nowadays look more like public baths,” one shopkeeper joked.

”How can I sell things if I can't advertise them'” complained another shopkeeper. “Our sales have gone down 50 per cent since these restrictions.”

But while the products may be less visible, it is still possible to buy pretty much anything you might be looking for in Peshawar without having to resort to much subterfuge.

Analysts say MMA leaders are “more pragmatic” than the Taliban and know how far they can push their agenda given domestic and international concerns about Islamic extremism.

Most of the arrested shopkeepers, for example, were released after a night in jail and payment of fines.

“Unlike the Taliban they will not force men to grow beards or women to wear burqas,” newspaper editor Rahimullah Yusufzai said.

Yusufzai said the MMA had called for the abolition of co-education in the province during its election campaign but had failed to act on this so far.

”There is no possibility to ban these things and they will not do it,” he said.

”They lack resources and they are very sensitive to the reaction of the military and Western countries to their policies,” Yusufzai said. “They have made a lot of compromises and they will adjust themselves to the realities.”

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