Islamabad, Oct. 8 (Reuters): The assassination of an extremist Sunni militant leader in Pakistan this week has not only fanned a dangerous flare-up in sectarian violence between Sunni and Shias. It has also exposed the contradictions in President Pervez Musharraf’s drive to crack down on radical Islam.
Musharraf has set himself up as a moderate Muslim and an enemy of extremism. Yet in an effort to legitimise his rule, he has turned to religious hardliners to try to bolster his support in parliament.
“The military-led government’s attention is totally focused on legitimacy, and the regime’s survival depends on the support of religious parties,” said Samina Ahmed of the Brussels-based think tank, the International Crisis Group. “How do you crack down on folks who may help you gain legitimacy'”
Assassinated militant Azam Tariq, a member of parliament, was himself a supporter of the pro-Musharraf government after being freed from jail.
Musharraf has won praise in the West for his support for the US-led war on terror, yet neighbouring countries accuse his military of maintaining links with militant groups and sponsoring “cross-border terrorism” for its own foreign policy goals.
In January 2002, Musharraf launched a crackdown on Islamic extremism in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, banning five militant groups including Tariq’s Sunni group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).
Thousands of suspects were rounded up, and some of the worst offenders thrown in jail. After a string of attacks on Christian and Western targets last year, the violence even seemed to abate after a leading militant blew himself up in Karachi. But Musharraf, critics say, never followed through with the crackdown as far as he ought to have done. SSP, for example — a group blamed for much of the sectarian violence and with links to Afghanistan’s Taliban regime — simply sidestepped the ban by renaming itself.
Tariq contested and won a parliamentary seat from jail, and was subsequently freed. He continued to make inflammatory speeches against Shias.
He was gunned down on Monday on the outskirts of Islamabad, in apparent revenge for a wave of killings of Shias in recent months, most infamously an attack on a mosque in Quetta in July that left more than 50 worshippers dead.
In editorials today, Pakistani newspapers blamed the country’s security services for failing to get to grips with sectarian violence and protect their own citizens. “If the intelligence agencies had time to spare from their prior engagements, which consist of building coalitions for the government and driving wedges in the opposition... this violence might have been avoided,” The Nation wrote. General Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, accusing Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto of looting the country.
In the four years since, he has won credit for saving Pakistan from a looming debt crisis and laying the foundations for a solid economic recovery. He has also turned Pakistan from a virtual pariah state to a key Western ally. But by clamping down on the country’s mainstream political parties ahead of last year’s parliamentary elections, he also created a vacuum which the religious Right has filled.
Religious parties have paralysed parliamentary proceedings this year and continue to condemn Musharraf for cosying up to Washington. At the same time they are negotiating openly with his government over constitutional reforms which would cement his grip on power.